COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — They came to see the legend break a record, but instead got to see the prodigy make a statement.
On the night Clint Dempsey was expected to tie or even break Landon Donovan's record for most career U.S. national team goals, it was Christian Pulisic who delivered a pair of key strikes to help the U.S. earn a vital 2-0 victory over Trinidad & Tobago.
Facing the same team they demolished last September in another home qualifier, the Americans found it much tougher to break down Trinidad & Tobago's defense, at least in the first half. Things changed after halftime when Darlington Nagbe's incisive dribble broke down the defense and Pulisic finished off the best sequence of the night for the Americans.
Pulisic didn't need long to secure the insurance goal, racing past his mark before slipping a hard and low shot past T&T goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams in the 65th minute, essentially settling the match against a Soca Warriors side that isn't really built to play from behind.
If the talk about giving Pulisic time to develop hadn't already been silenced back in March with his impressive outings, then the funeral for the play-it-safe approach to handling Pulisic took place on Thursday night, with the Dortmund youngster shoveling the dirt on the coffin with his two-goal effort.
Once again, Pulisic dealt with physical treatment from an opponent, with a hard foul in the opening minutes making it clear Trinidad & Tobago didn't want to let him get comfortable. Pulisic responded the same way he did against Panama, by continuing to attack and shaking off the rough play.
"If I were any team that played us, I’d certainly target him," U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard said. "I keep saying, I’m not sure he’d win a street fight, but he’ll always get stuck into a tackle. He’s not afraid. He’s a big boy, he plays in the Bundisliga. He knows what it is about. He’s not afraid, and that’s huge for us. Because you look at him, he’s not the biggest and he doesn’t look the strongest. Teams are always going to come in and try and get stuck into him. That probably suits us and then we just have to protect him."
"He’s played in some big games. He’s a big boy now," coach Bruce Arena said of Pulisic. "To be honest with you, we’re not playing in an age-group competition. No one cares how old you are or anything like that. He’s got to deal with it and he’s been fine. I think he made out okay tonight.”
Dempsey's night ended early, with Arena pulling him out just a minute before Pulisic's second goal. The Seattle Sounders star could be seen protesting the early exit with Arena, but the USA boss needed only to point to Pulisic racing down the field and settling the outcome to show it wasn't a bad move.
“There’s a guy with a lot of confidence and he wants to be on the field," Arena said when asked about Dempsey's reaction to being subbed off. "However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team and position us to win the game. And I understand that he’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it and he’s OK. He’s got a real competitive edge to him. And at that point in the game I needed to take out a forward. I chose Clint over Jozy."
Arena's change made sense on multiple levels. The U.S. held the lead and needed more stability in midfield, which Kellyn Acosta was able to provide. Pulling Dempsey early increases the chances he can take on an increased role against Mexico on Sunday. Then there was the unintended — or shrewdly intentional — consequence of having a fired up Dempsey ahead of Sunday's showdown with Mexico. Dempsey has made a career out of feeling like he needs to prove himself, and the competitor in him must have felt like a challenge was laid down.
No, Dempsey wasn't able to find the goal to tie Donovan's mark, but he did play his part in the match, combining with Nagbe on the sequence that culminated with Pulisic finishing from close range. Other than that though, it was a quiet night for the veteran striker, with his closest chance at a goal coming in the first half off a shot from the top of the box that sailed just over the crossbar.
The Americans had a tough time breaking down the Soca Warriors, too often settling for bad shots and forced crosses that led to nowhere. But there was a clear change in the second half, with the Americans making more of an effort to play through the middle, as well as more of an effort to get Pulisic involved in the match after a quiet first half.
"I guess it just took me some time to get going," Pulisic said. "The first half I felt a bit tired, but in the second half I got kind of a second win and was feeling better."
Nagbe was a big key in the tide turning in the second half, with his impressive runs at the defense opening up space and opportunity which Pulisic was able to thrive on.
"When (Nagbe's) on his game, and he’s gliding past players like he does it helps us so much," Pulisic said. "He’s a great player to have over there. It helps me and the team so much."
There were some defensive issues for the U.S. to address as well, with Trinidad & Tobago finding success with crosses into the penalty area, a threat the U.S. has historically handled well. It's a safe bet Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio will have taken notice of that, though there is also a very good chance the U.S. will field a much different lineup on Sunday.
Overall, Arena couldn't have asked for a much better outcome. Sure, a first-half blowout would have been better in order to make earlier substitutions and make it a less-taxing match, but Trinidad & Tobago deserves some credit for having made clear improvements under coach Dennis Lawrence. The U.S. escaped relatively healthy, Arena was able to pull Dempsey and Fabian Johnson somewhat early, and he even sat Altidore with eight minutes left. He watched Nagbe really come out of his shell and impose himself in the second half, and he may have himself a fired-up Dempsey to turn to when the U.S. travels down to Mexico City for an extremely tough test against El Tri.
Last, but certainly not least, Arena watched Pulisic continue to develop into a player whose performances match his ability, a rising star who took another step toward being the team's go-to player.
"He’s having fun," Arena said of Pulisic. "I just think he’s a natural for the game. He sees the game very well and has good instincts on getting into good spots. Especially his running off the ball is exceptional. As he gets a little bit better, and a little bit more experienced, I think his ability to be a playmaker, or a better passer of the ball in the last half of the field will improve. He’s certainly an exceptional talent."
Pulisic's talent is matched by his growing confidence, which was clear to see in his post-match guarantee that the U.S. will beat Mexico on Sunday. He toned it down later on, but he sounds very much like a player who believes the U.S. can record its first World Cup qualifying victory in Mexico.
"Mexico, they’re a good team and they’re not easy to beat at home so it’s going to take a lot," Pulisic said. "But with the guys we have, and the confidence we have, I think there’s no reason why we can’t do it."
As much as Arena is expected to make several changes to his starting lineup due to the short break between Thursday's win and Sunday's match against Mexico, Pulisic made it clear that he can handle starting and playing 90 minutes again on Sunday at Estadio Azteca.
"Yeah, absolutely," Pulisic said. "I'm still young."