When Christian Pulisic walked off the field in the 77th minute of Borussia Dortmund's season-opening win against RB Leipzig on August 26, he looked healthy after playing his part in the victory. The U.S. national team star got his new club season off to a promising start, which wasn't a real surprise given how good he looked in preseason. For any USMNT fans watching, the prospect of seeing him play against Brazil and Mexico a few weeks later had to be exciting, especially after having been limited to seeing him in a U.S. uniform just once in 2018, in a lethargic performance against Bolivia.
Back then, the narrative being pushed was that Pulisic was tired from a long grind of a season, which meant that rather than playing in all three of the USMNT's friendlies after the European campaign finished, he would only play against Bolivia and skip matches against Ireland and France to enjoy a much-needed vacation. It was easy to believe after watching Pulisic's sluggish, and at times disinterested, 89-minute effort. The U.S. went to Europe and lost to Ireland before an encouraging 1-1 draw against eventual World Cup winners France, a result that made it easy to dismiss any questions about why Pulisic wasn't there.
Pulisic is set to miss another set of friendlies now, after it was revealed that he suffered a minor muscle injury at some point either during or after that season-opening match against RB Leipzig. He missed Dortmund's 0-0 draw against Hannover on Friday with the injury, and has now been left off the U.S. squad set to face Brazil and Mexico. According to U.S. Soccer, Pulisic's injury was not significant, and one source told Goal that under different circumstances, such as World Cup qualifying, Pulisic would have been brought into camp to see if the national team could get him ready to play.
Injuries happen, so you are rarely going to see a star like Pulisic criticized for missing some friendlies because of an injury. But the context of Pulisic's participation with the USMNT over the past 10 months casts his latest absence in a questionable light, even though, as sources have confirmed to Goal , Pulisic's current injury is real, if not serious.
Counting the Brazil and Mexico friendlies, Pulisic will now have missed seven of eight national team matches, with none of the other absences being injury-related. One of those seven came in January, when Dortmund didn't have to release him and he was never expected to play. The rest, however, were matches he could have been called in for. It began with a friendly against Portugal last November. It was easy to see why Pulisic might want to focus on his club team only a month after the emotional devastation of missing the World Cup. By March, Pulisic was once again allowed to stay in Germany rather than participate in a friendly against Paraguay. There was no injury at the time, and Dortmund was two weeks removed from being eliminated from the last of its cup competition requirements, but Pulisic was still allowed to stay in Germany.
What went unsaid at the time was that there was a sense throughout U.S. Soccer that Pulisic was being pushed by his camp (some combination of Borussia Dortmund, his agent and his father) to skip all three friendlies. A compromise was reached, which was having Pulisic play against Bolivia — in his home state in a match that desperately needed his presence to help sell tickets — and let him skip the other matches, even if there was clearly concern within U.S. Soccer about him missing the friendlies in Europe.
It became clear shortly before that compromise was reached that some in Pulisic's camp weren't happy with how things were being handled.
The success and development of our national team will not be determined over the next 2 months. Please be smart, and look at the best interest of each players own personal development so success will be long term. — Mark Pulisic (@MarkPulisic) May 4, 2018
The tweet from Pulisic's father went largely overlooked, but it gave the clear impression that, in Pulisic's circle, the USMNT friendlies were a low priority, and protecting the prodigious talent mattered most. Of course, that same desire to protect Pulisic didn't keep Dortmund from flying him from Germany to California to play in an awkwardly timed friendly in Los Angeles just five days before the USMNT friendly against Bolivia, putting him through the promotional ringer in the club's desperate desire to cultivate roots in the United States.
By the time Pulisic arrived in the Philadelphia area for the Bolivia friendly, he appeared detached and disinterested, oftentimes looking like a kid being made to do his homework rather than a kid relishing the national team experience. He wore poorly forced smiles when he had too off the field, and slow-walked his way around the PPL Park pitch during the friendly.
Nothing was said at the time because this is, after all, Christian Pulisic, the future of the national team program, and arguably the most talented player the U.S. program has ever produced. He had just come off having played the most minutes of his young career, so being burned out made sense. That said, a year earlier Pulisic had also played a heavy load of minutes for someone his age, having been part of Dortmund's Champions League and DFB-Pokal runs along with World Cup qualifying. Despite that workload, Pulisic was still able to shine in a June qualifying win against Trinidad and Tobago, while also playing 90 minutes in a 1-1 draw at Estadio Azteca against Mexico.
Current caretaker USMNT coach Dave Sarachan remained diplomatic after the Bolivia friendly, but recently expressed his own concerns about Pulisic.
“What I want to see from [Pulisic] is a desire, a passion, energy, excitement and a great effort,” Sarachan told Sports Illustrated on Friday. “That should be each and every player that we bring in, and Christian is no different. … Look at the Bolivia game. It was an outlier from that standpoint. Yes, he was tired. He was coming off a long season—whatever the reasons. But when you come in with the national team, those boxes have to be checked.”
“We needed a little bit more, and I think [Pulisic] knows that," Sarachan added, referring the Bolivia friendly. "He’s got the potential to be a major player for the senior national team. Will he maybe be a captain one day? He’s got the ability. We all know. So when he comes in, I’m hoping that he can be influential and bring the group together in an infectious way, and make sure he’s all in, because we need him. He’s that good."
The reality is the USMNT has never had a player like Pulisic, who is already a European-based star as a teenager. Pulisic owes a great deal of his success to how Dortmund has handled him and his career, so you can understand why he might want to defer to Dortmund's wishes at times. He is also still just 19, which might make him a player who leans on the counsel of those closest to him more than an older, more experienced player.
Given the state of the national team program — which missed the World Cup and still hasn't hired a new full-time coach — you could see why a young star like Pulisic might see the USMNT as something to put on the back burner right now as he focuses on continuing his rise in Europe. After all, the United States doesn't play a competitive match until the 2019 Gold Cup next summer. It is clear that Pulisic is being counselled to focus on his club career over his national team career at the moment.
Pulisic can do what he wants, but the fact is the USMNT program is also integrating a new generation, a group that Pulisic is supposed to be one of the leaders of, but instead of leading the group, he has missed match after match.
That isn't exactly setting a good example, or a good precedent, for the next generation. Will the next breakout American teenager look at Pulisic's actions and assume that is okay? Will current youngsters, like Tim Weah, start to de-prioritize call-ups because Pulisic is doing it? Should U.S. fans just accept that dealing with an entitled young superstar is the cost of having one represent your country?
Which brings us to the present, and Pulisic's unfortunately timed injury. Dortmund is his employer, and has every right to want to be cautious and careful with an important player, and the USMNT isn't exactly a priority for Dortmund.
But it is also Dortmund that started Pulisic in all but one of its six preseason matches, and played him at least 45 minutes in every single match it had played — friendly, DFB-Pokal and Bundesliga opener — since the team reconvened from summer break. One might look at that workload and wonder if it was Dortmund's plan all along to get Pulisic some rest during the September international break. Perhaps that's a bit too much of a conspiracy theory, but it is fact that Dortmund in no way appeared to manage Pulisic's minutes with a pair of high-level international friendlies in mind.
You can argue that the upcoming USMNT matches are just friendlies, but matches against a full-strength Brazil team are special opportunities for a national team to test itself as a group and gain invaluable experience. As for the Mexico match, El Tri is the USMNT's biggest rival, so no friendly is truly "just a friendly" when the rivalry is involved. So you would imagine that it would take something serious to keep a top player away from those matches, at least that would be the hope.
So if Pulisic manages to recover from his injury in time to play in Dortmund's September 14 match against Eintracht Frankfurt — just three days after the Mexico friendly — it is going to lead to some justifiable criticism of him, and lead to questions about just how committed he really is to the national team. Of course, if Pulisic misses the match, it will ease some of the pressure, though not completely erase the questions about where the national team lies on his list of priorities.
It might seem harsh to criticize Pulisic considering how young he is, but he's not a kid anymore. He's into his third full professional season in one of the world's best leagues, and he turns 20 later this month, so pretty soon he'll also lose the teenager label as well. American soccer fans see him as the savior of a program that is in badly in need of saving, but with that status comes serious responsibilities. Chief among them is showing USMNT fans that the national team is a high priority, and playing for the national team matters to him at all times, and not just when the World Cup is on the line.