The U.S. national team heads into the 2019 Concacaf Gold Cup with Christian Pulisic as the team's unquestioned leading star, and most important player. That role comes as no surprise given the level the young midfielder has already reached, but what is significant heading into this Gold Cup is the changing of the guard that Pulisic's leading role represents.
The 2000 Gold Cup isn't a very memorable one for the U.S. national team. Bruce Arena's squad stumbled in the quarterfinals, losing a penalty shootout to guest nation Colombia with a team featuring several USMNT legends, including Claudio Reyna, Brian McBride, Eric Wynalda, Cobi Jones, Eddie Pope and Brad Friedel.
What is significant about that 2000 U.S. team some 19 years later is that it was that 2000 Gold Cup that marked the last time a full-strength United States went into a major tournament without either Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey on the squad. There were notable exceptions in the 2007 Copa America and 2009 Gold Cup, but in each instance, the United States fielded reserve teams, first in 2007 in order to focus on that year's Gold Cup, then in 2009 to send a full-strength squad to the Confederations Cup, which saw the USMNT reach the final, losing to Brazil in dramatic fashion.
To put into perspective how long ago that 2000 Gold Cup was, consider that the quarterfinal loss to Colombia came a day before Josh Sargent was born, and three days before Tim Weah was born. Christian Pulisic was one year old at the time.
Donovan and Dempsey were staples of every major U.S. tournament team from 2002 to 2017, leading the USMNT to five Gold Cup titles during that span and setting records along the way as the most prolific tandem in USMNT history. Now both are retired, and Pulisic steps into the marquee role as not only the biggest American star, but arguably the biggest star in the tournament.
The United States has some big-name veterans, such as Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore, but Pulisic is the player expected to be the one to carry the attack and be the leading man in much the same way Donovan and Dempsey were for so many years.
Pulisic's first starring role would have come at the 2018 World Cup if the Americans had qualified. He was the team's best USMNT player in qualifying, and even though Dempsey was still a factor, and would likely have stuck it out to be part of another World Cup team, a 2018 U.S. World Cup team would have counted Pulisic as the driving force.
Some 20 months after that disastrous night in Trinidad and Tobago, Pulisic finally gets to show off his considerable talent with an international trophy on the line, and with him in a starring role. He had a bit part on the U.S. team's 2016 Copa America squad, but was more spectator than difference maker.
This summer, USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter is counting on Pulisic to be his playmaker, deploying him in an attacking midfield role he believes will make the U.S. attack more effective, while also helping strengthen Pulisic's overall game.
"People see what he’s good at and say he should be doing this, and I’m looking at it saying ‘Okay, what else can we develop in him'," Berhalter told Goal. "That’s the way I'm looking at it. I like to see him inside, getting the ball between lines, turning, going at them. He didn't get to do that much in Germany. I think this is going to develop his overall game."
Though he has spent most of his club career as a winger, Pulisic's formative years in the U.S. youth national team setup were spent as a playmaker, so the role in Berhalter's system isn't foreign to him. He will have the freedom to float between the central channel and the wings, probing for weak links.
Pulisic will have some added incentive in this Gold Cup, with the USMNT facing the same Trinidad and Tobago team that defeated the Americans, costing them their place at the 2018 World Cup. Pulisic shed tears that night, missing out on his chance to play on the sport's biggest stage, and when they meet in Cleveland on Saturday, Pulisic will have some extra motivation to put on a show.
"Obviously I want some revenge. I want to beat them," Pulisic said. "The team's going to go out and give it everything and we want to win that game."
The 2019 Gold Cup isn't about settling scores though. For the United States, it's about taking a big first step under Berhalter, and beginning the process of building a squad that will help the program return to the World Cup in 2022. Pulisic is the centerpiece of the redevelopment of the U.S. program, and this summer's Gold Cup will be his opportunity to show he's more than ready to take the reins.
With long-time USMNT standouts Donovan and Dempsey long gone, Pulisic has the marquee to himself, and he'll be looking to win his first of what USMNT fans are hoping will be many trophies with the U.S. national team.
"Of course we want to buiild, we want to learn and continue to grow within this team, but when it comes down to it, it's a tournament and everyone weants to win," Pulisic said. "I would love to win it."