Christian Pulisic scaled one of the loftiest peaks in world soccer on Saturday, logging nearly 30 minutes off the bench to help Chelsea defeat Manchester City 1-0 in the UEFA Champions League final in Portugal. The historic achievement sparked powerful emotions written across his face in the postgame celebrations, capping a long and exhausting season.
Some might expect it to be difficult for the star winger to refresh himself both mentally and physically in time to feature for the US men’s national team’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal vs. Honduras on Thursday (7:30 pm ET | TUDN, Paramount+), a match at high altitude nearly 5,000 miles west of Porto likely to look and feel quite different from the one he just played.
Not Gregg Berhalter.
“I mean, you try to tell Christian that he's not playing on Thursday. It's going to be a very difficult one,” cracked the USMNT head coach after Sunday’s 2-1 friendly loss at Switzerland. “Coming off of winning the Champions League, coming in the game, making an impact in that game, he's ready to go. It would be very hard to keep him out of the lineup.”
Pulisic’s friend and teammate Weston McKennie spoke of the psychological lift the Pennsylvania native can bring to the group after becoming just the second US male in history to win European club soccer’s highest honor and the first ever to play in the UCL final.
“Christian coming back and being fit and coming off the high of winning the Champions League, I think it’s very important,” said McKennie, who captained the USMNT on Sunday. “To also be able to bring that mentality over here, because we're all working towards what they accomplished the other night, and we're also working to get better.
“When someone wins a trophy, it just helps the group realize that we want to have a winning mentality, that we want to win games and we want to win titles, we want to win trophies. So I think him coming back into the group, we’ll be very happy to have him back and I think he'll be able to share some of his experiences as well and have it rub off on us.”
Berhalter’s words would seem to confirm at least one of his starting spots against Honduras, a ruggedly physical opponent with a history of troubling the US men at both senior and youth national team levels. Zack Steffen, Man City’s second-string goalkeeper, is also an odds-on pick to step back into the XI when he too rejoins the USMNT.
Other lineup questions abound as the Yanks jetted across the Atlantic on Monday, though. While Honduras must be taken seriously the US would surely like to win while keeping something in reserve for the inaugural Nations League final on Sunday, where they would meet the winner of the Costa Rica-Mexico semifinal on a quick turnaround.
Berhalter and his staff gathered their group in Switzerland to acclimatize the players’ lungs to Colorado’s thin air and are treating this week like a dry run for the taxing slate of World Cup qualifiers that kick off in the fall, so other changes from the side used on Sunday are expected.
Ideally defensive midfield linchpin Tyler Adams would also be restored to the lineup. But the New York Red Bulls academy product is already in the United States nursing a nagging back injury that disrupted the end of his season with RB Leipzig, and Berhalter shared little when asked about his status.
“We're going to get updated by the medical staff tomorrow when we fly over,” said the coach. “It's too early to tell right now.”
Berhalter spoke approvingly of the work contributed by Gio Reyna and Philadelphia Union alums Brenden Aaronson and Mark McKenzie against Switzerland. But probably no one on the pitch in St. Gallen improved their prospects for continued minutes more than Sebastian Lletget, who scored the USMNT’s goal, passed at a 93.2% accuracy rate, including one key pass, and won the lion's share of his seven duels.
“He's another one who just does his job,” said Berhalter of the LA Galaxy mainstay. “He's very secure on the ball, he works, he puts his head down. When you have enough of those guys giving that type of effort, you’re always going to be in games, and then you have special plays that happen that win you games. But he's a guy that, really happy with his performance, happy how he's contributed with this team over the last couple years.”