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After promising debut in playmaker role, what's next for Christian Pulisic?

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica -— The scene at Mapfre Stadium on Friday night was a far cry from the one we saw eight months earlier, at least when it came to Christian Pulisic.

Back in March, Pulisic made his U.S. national team debut, coming on as a second-half substitute to enthusiastic cheers from fans who had already heard about a young player who could be the next American star.

Fast-forward to Friday, before the U.S.-Mexico World Cup qualifier. Walking around a packed stadium you could see just as many Christian Pulisic jerseys as any others, and when the U.S. supporters group American Outlaws unveiled their tifo for Friday's match, there was a two-story tall impression of Pulisic staring out at a sold-out stadium, holding up a "dos a cero" with his hands.

Those scenes alone made for a bit of a surreal experience for the 18-year-old midfielder. But then the game began, and it became very clear that Jurgen Klinsmann was done bringing Pulisic along slowly, choosing instead to hand him the keys to the U.S. attack against the national team's biggest rival.

The U.S. ultimately wound up losing 2-1, but Pulisic looked every bit like a player capable of taking on the increased duties.

"I think Christian handled it very well. He's trying to find his openings, find some areas where can explode and take people on," Klinsmann said after Friday's loss. "I think he did very well. He had the freedom to roam, in that system with the 3-4-3, he can go either way, left, right or middle. He's going to play off of the two strong strikers and I'm definitely sure that we'll see it once in awhile, that system, because it actually suits us.

"I think you can see his quality and you see his talent that is there and we'll just take it one step at a time with him."

Pulisic and the U.S. team had a tough time breaking through Mexico's defensive setup in the first half, but found much more success in the second half, as the young midfielder found more room to operate.

"It just took us some time to get into the game," Pulisic said. "We were really good and strong in the second half. It was a very good performance. We did not deserve to lose that, to concede that goal at the end."

Originally deployed in advanced role closer to forwards Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood, Pulisic eventually shifted to the left flank in a 4-4-2. He took on Mexican defenders, and worked to combine with his teammates, showing the confidence of a veteran. Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio made it clear heading into the match that stopping Pulisic was a priority, and Mexico's defense did well to limit the damage he caused. That still didn't stop Pulisic from putting in a promising performance.

"He's a kid that's fearless, has all of the ability in the world," Altidore said of Pulisic after Friday's loss. "I thought he was terrific tonight. It's not an easy game to come in and start, especially at that age and I thought he handled himself very well."

Used mainly as a winger in his previous national team appearances, Pulisic spent his formative years as an attacking midfielder deployed centrally. Borussia Dortmund has utilized him mainly in wing roles, both right and left, but more recently he has begun to spend time floating centrally and attacking through the middle. That increased versatility, and Pulisic's improving club form, gave Klinsmann the confidence to hand the teenager the keys to the midfield ahead of a veteran like Sacha Kljestan.

It can't be understated just how much the U.S. attack needs Pulisic to thrive. Since Landon Donovan left the picture two years ago, and now with Clint Dempsey sidelined with a heart condition, the U.S. is facing a lack of creativity that threatens to hold back the team at a time when it actually has a strong forward tandem in Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood that has begun to blossom. It is that very concern that has led Klinsmann to push Pulisic into a key playmaking role at such a young age.

The U.S. is in uncharted territory with Pulisic. At no point in modern U.S. national team history has a teenager been handed attacking midfield duties the way Klinsmann appears ready to do with Pulisic. Players such as Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos didn't get their first caps until their 20s, while Landon Donovan played as a forward when he made his first World Cup qualifying appearance in 2001 as a 19-year-old. That match, a 3-2 loss to Honduras at RFK Stadium, just so happens to be the last time the U.S. had lost a home World Cup qualifier before Friday's loss to Mexico.

So should we be expecting Pulisic to handle those duties going forward, or will Klinsmann stick him on the flank again so he can use a player like Sacha Kljestan as a playmaker? We will find out Tuesday, when the U.S. takes the field against a Costa Rica team it has never beaten on the road. Costa Rica doesn't boast as strong a midfield as Mexico does and Pulisic could enjoy more success against the Ticos. He certainly showed enough confidence on Friday to earn another look in the role.

Even if Klinsmann chooses to move Pulisic back to the wing, and put the Pulisic-as-playmaker transformation on hold, it is safe to say we saw enough from him Friday against Mexico to believe it is only a matter of time before Pulisic finds a permanent home running the U.S. attack from the middle of the field.

Jermaine Jones said it best last Thursday. When asked about Pulisic, the veteran midfielder said, "The young boy, he's special."

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