'He's expected to be Messi or Ronaldo' - How Pulisic is shedding the weight of being USMNT's golden child as World Cup qualification looms

Christian Pulisic USMNT 2022Getty Images

One of the lasting images of the U.S. men's national team's doomed 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign was that of American soccer's prodigy bawling his eyes out.

As the final whistle blew on the darkest night in American soccer history, there sat Christian Pulisic, the country's great hope, the player that was supposed to be the first from the U.S. to truly transcend.

Summer 2018 was meant to be Pulisic's coming out party, a chance for an American wonderkid to become a star of the soccer world unlike any that had come before him.

But, on that October night in Trinidad & Tobago, Pulisic did not take a step towards stardom. Instead, he wept.

Emotion poured out of him as he was consoled by veteran team-mates, but what could they do? Through no fault of his own, American soccer was living in a nightmare, and Pulisic was at the center of it.

That moment, that horrible moment, was a harsh reminder. On that night, he was not a star in the making or the face of a country; Christian Pulisic was just a 19-year-old kid who had had his dream crushed.

For some, that night feels like a lifetime ago. For others, it feels like just yesterday. But, in the four-and-a-half years since, much has changed for Pulisic.

A new generation has been ushered in, with Pulisic continuing his ascent to become the face of U.S. Soccer. He has won a Champions League, Nations League and Club World Cup to amass an enviable medal haul before turning 24.

He has lost himself, found himself and rediscovered himself several times as he has faced battles on and off the field.

But, thanks to that night in Couva, there is still that asterisk, still that empty spot on his resume. To truly become a star, to truly transcend, a player needs to show it at the World Cup.

2017-10-11 Trinidad & Tobago vs USA
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On Wednesday, Pulisic can finally book his spot on the biggest stage, as the USMNT aim to seal qualification for the 2022 tournament and end the journey of discovery they have been on over the past four-and-a-half years.

And perhaps one of the biggest lessons of that journey for Pulisic is that the best way for him to be the star American soccer needs to be is for him to embrace his role as one of many.

"I have no regrets," Pulisic said ahead of the international break. "Obviously, we were in a position to do it last time and we weren't able to reach our goal, but this is a bunch of guys who are really just looking forward and a really hungry team who is going to give absolutely everything to make sure that we have a spot in the World Cup.

"I think it's something we obviously don't want to go through again, but there's really no regrets from that time. I've obviously learned a lot and this team has learned a lot in our careers, and I think it's just a mindset now as well, where we are a confident bunch of guys and we can go into any game thinking that we can win."

Barring an unfathomable collapse, Pulisic will not go through a night like Couva again this time. Unless the USMNT lose to Costa Rica by six or more goals, they will be on their way to Qatar. Even if that does happen, they will still have a mulligan in the form of a playoff, one which they would be favored to win

They all-but locked up their spot on Sundaym, as they topped Panama 5-1 behind a Pulisic hat-trick. It was perhaps the forward's most complete performance in a USMNT shirt in more ways than one.

Over the last few months, Pulisic has evolved for the USMNT. The teenage kid that lost it all in Couva is growing up, and he is learning how best to lead from the front.

For years, Pulisic seemed burdened by leadership, perhaps overwhelmed by it. He, in his own words, tried too hard to prove that he could be the guy. He put too much pressure on himself, adding extra weight to shoulders that already had plenty to carry.

But, in recent times, Pulisic is starting to shed that weight. He is a star, yes. He is still the biggest name in American soccer. But he does not have to shoulder that load all on his own.

A quick look around the locker room shows players from Barcelona, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Valencia, Lille and Manchester City. There are a few more that will be playing at that level soon, too.

Next to him are players like Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie, friends that he has known since before his rise to stardom, before he became the face of a program. They are people that he can trust, on and off the field.

Pulisic is seemingly embracing the fact that he is a rising star surrounded by rising stars. He does not have to do it all on his own.

"I think that that Christian has always felt that responsibility with him growing up as sort of that golden child in the U.S. Soccer generation," Adams said. "People put expectations on him and, to be quite frank with you, he's dealt with them better than anybody would really deal with that.

"In every single situation, he's expected to do things that people like [Lionel] Messi and [Cristiano] Ronaldo are supposed to do. He's supposed to bring us to the World Cup, and I think that he's seeing now that, with the quality of team that we have, he can take a little bit less responsibility because we have the quality of players now that can pick up a little bit of that slack and continue to help.

"We just always want to put him in the best position to succeed, but he's doing a great job."

Against Panama, Pulisic was handed the captain's armband, and he looked every bit of a captain. He led, he pushed, he fought, he scrapped, showing a level of emotion he often does not show with the USMNT.

In the years since his debut, Pulisic has often been a stoic figure. He rarely says much and often prefers to let his play do the talking. He deflects controversy, dodges difficult questions, stays quiet, calm, cool, collected.

But that performance against Panama brought out a different Pulisic, one that was filled with fire. He battled with the opposition. He showed emotion: anger, excitement, sarcasm, joy. He played in a way that he had not before with the USMNT and, most importantly, he scored three goals.

The first two goals came from the penalty spot, while the third was a dazzling finish that, rightfully, left many in awe. He played like he knew what was on the line, like he knew that this was a chance to lift his country into a World Cup.

“He was on the field when we didn’t qualify. And this was us saying to him, ‘This is a new group. This is a new team and you're a leader,’” USMNG boss Gregg Berhalter said when asked about why he handed Pulisic the captaincy. “We wanted to show that and we wanted to highlight that.

"And I think when I look at his performance, besides the three goals and the hat-trick, I think everything else was in line. Everything else was exactly what we needed him to do in terms of his work rate, his effort, his energy, his intensity, and his leadership.”

This new, improved Pulisic is a dangerous one, and he is coming along at just the right time. Barring an epic collapse, the USMNT are bound for the World Cup and, despite the talent around him, Pulisic will be a key figure in defining how they do in Qatar.

How he handles that remains to be seen. He is still just 23, after all. In theory, this will be his first of several World Cups, just an initial taste of that stage before the tournament comes stateside in 2026.

By then, Pulisic will, hopefully, be in the prime of his career, a seasoned veteran with nearly a decade of international experience under his belt.

That first cycle will forever be part of that experience. It will forever remain part of his story, of American soccer's story. It still looms large for Pulisic, even with his team on the presipice of moving past it.

"We use it as motivation," Pulisic said last week. "We were extremely upset and now we want to qualify.

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"We have the opportunity now, and yeah, we definitely don't want to go through that again."

This time around, there should not be any more tears. There likely will not be any more heartbreak for Pulisic and the USMNT.

Right now, there is only excitement as Pulisic looks set to finally get his chance to become the leader he expects himself to be.