It wasn't exactly what Christian Pulisic said that surprised those that follow American soccer. Instead, it was the fact that Pulisic said anything at all, as the normally reserved and measured American superstar was the first U.S. men's national team player to really make his opinion known on the Gio Reyna-Gregg Berhalter saga.
He came out swinging, too, hitting out at what he saw as a "childish" series of events from the adults in the room that has, for the past few months, become the story of American soccer.
For years, Pulisic has based his game, and many parts of his life, on the game of chess. He's a person that is always thinking a few steps ahead, calculating the risks and rewards of every decision he makes. And that's what makes this recent interview seem like such a calculated move from a player that seems determined to take more control than ever before.
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Pulisic's status as a leader of the national team has never been in doubt. While Tyler Adams wore the armband in Qatar, Pulisic is right there with him among this team's figureheads. He's part of the leadership council established under Berhalter, a group of players that the now-former coach put in place to help make team-related decisions and inform his point of view from a player perspective.
And it's Pulisic's very public backing of Berhalter that brings us to this discussion. Thus far, plenty of USMNT players have been asked about Berhalter's future. Most, predictably, have toed the line. They've loved playing under him, they've said, and wouldn't mind doing so again, but this is U.S. Soccer's decision and they would work hard for anyone in the national team.
Pulisic, to a degree, echoed that sentiment in his ESPN interview, but he also very openly backed Berhalter, heaping praise on the coach and giving him tons of credit for getting the U.S. program to where it is today. He opened up about some of the darker moments in their relationship and what he learned from them, ultimately making him a better player in the process.
Most notably, though, he defended Berhalter in the wake of the recent feud with the Reyna family. Until recently, most players have stayed out of it, and rightfully so. But Pulisic attacked the subject head-on.
"In my opinion, everything that happened with Gregg has been handled in an extremely childish manner," he said. "I think we all have seen what's been going on. I think it's childish. It's [something you'd see in] youth soccer: people complaining about playing time. I don't want to go too far into that, but I think Gregg has been extremely unfortunate to get into the position he is now."
To be fair, Pulisic can say such things because he is who he is. He doesn't need to worry about reprisals or upsetting anyone because he is the U.S. soccer superstar. Given his status as a player and his experience at both club and international level, Pulisic is allowed to call people "childish" more so than others in the national team program.
But him doing so is notable because, until now, it's not a side of him that many have seen. For years, Pulisic has almost exclusively stayed away from controversy, routinely giving the safe answer when questioned about much of anything. He's generally left the talking to some of the program's more outgoing characters, whether that be the affable Weston McKennie or the almost inhumanly-mature Adams.
Pulisic has peeled back the layers a bit in recent years, detailing his struggles with mental health most notably, but since his national team arrival, he hasn't ever really led with his words. At least not publicly, his team-mates say. The Pulisic seen in the USMNT locker room isn't the same one that he portrays publicly, according to Tim Ream.Getty Images
"That is the side of Christian that we are used to seeing when we come into camps," Ream said. "He is passionate. He does have opinions, he does have things that he's very happy to speak about. I've had that conversation with him as well, but that's a setting where he feels comfortable that he can share how he feels.
"I think there's there's nothing wrong with everybody sharing their opinions in the right moment on a lot of things. To see it was not a surprise. It was probably a surprise for all of you more than anything but that's the same Christian that we know and see every time we're in camp together."
So what convinced Pulisic to speak out this time? Why was this the right moment to make his opinion known?
Well, frustration is no doubt part of it, both on a personal and team level. It's been a rough few months for Pulisic since the World Cup as he's battled injury issues at Chelsea. And, while battling those injury issues, he's been forced to watch on as the USMNT's World Cup achievements were put on the backburner due to a mess made by American stars of yesteryear.
For months, the conversation hasn't been about what the U.S. achieved at the World Cup, but rather what the program will look like at the next one due to this civil war erupting.
That was no doubt a factor, as Pulisic and his team-mates will all likely feel overshadowed by this mess. But there's also more to it, you can assume. Maybe this is the moment where Pulisic seizes a bit more control of the narrative.
For this week, there's a chance we'll see more of Pulisic leading from the front. Due to Adams' injury absence, the USMNT needs a captain for their Nations League matches against Grenada and El Salvador, and there are few better equipped to take on the armband than Pulisic.
"One thing I've just seen over time is a young man that is maturing every time, getting a stronger mentality," said USMNT interim boss Anthony Hudson. "His approach to the national team, I think it's everything you would want from a top player like Christian.
"He believes in the national team, wants soccer to grow in this country, wants to inspire kids in this country, wants the national team to be a serious contender on the international level.
"We are really, really fortunate to have him coming back because he's an influential and inspiring person for other players."
Pulisic is no longer a young player, now 24 and a grizzled veteran with this team. His status as American soccer's big superstar has existed for years but, at least publicly, he's never really tried to wield it. Could this be the moment where Pulisic embraces it all, speaking out louder than ever before and offering a glimpse into the mind of a player and person that so many still want to learn more about?
We'll find out in the coming months and years as we find out what Pulisic has to say next.
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