JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The future has arrived.
Christian Pulisic may not be a man yet, at least in the eyes of the law, but he certainly is one on the soccer field. The 17-year-old made his first start for the US men’s national team in a World Cup qualifier in a 4-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, producing a performance that showed exactly why he's such a highly regarded prospect.
“As we’ve said over the last few months, one step at a time, but the step was right today,” said US coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “We watch every training session. Obviously, Copa America helped us a lot to bring him along and get comfortable in this group of older guys. He was very mature the way he trained every session. He was very focused.
“We thought, it’s a good time now. Obviously, the performance was wonderful for us.”
At 17 years and 353 days, the midfielder from Hershey, Pennsylvania is the youngest player to start for the USMNT in a competitive match.
Pulisic’s goal against St. Vincent & the Grenadines makes him the youngest American to score a goal in World Cup qualifying, breaking Jozy Altidore’s mark of 18 years, 339 days in a 6-1 win over Cuba in 2008. As was the case with the Toronto FC forward eight years ago, Pulisic scored in a qualifier, then earned his first start four days later.
Afterward, Altidore initially joked that he hated Pulisic for breaking his youthful records, before heaping praise on the young attacker’s mentality.
“It’s crazy. He’s 17 years old and he has a calmness when he gets the ball,” Altidore said. “He can glide by people … effortlessly. The challenge for him is to stay humble, keep improving and for you guys to leave him alone. He doesn’t need to be reading about himself too much. He needs to keep his head down and keep working.”
As was the case in Altidore’s first start, the USMNT faced Trinidad & Tobago. While the forward was thrown into the fire in Port-of-Spain, Pulisic’s introduction came in a friendlier environment. From his first touch in the third minute, to his 31st-minute shot that seemingly defied physics by hitting both posts and bouncing away, the crowd at EverBank Field roared in approval of the quicksilver attacker in the No. 10 shirt.
Pulisic said having Altidore and Bobby Wood as the two forwards created space for him, which made it easier to play underneath them as well as on the outside of the Americans’ 4-4-2 system.
“It took us a bit of time to start to get a feel for the game, which is important,” Pulisic said. “Once we got it, we gave it to them. We did a great job today.”
Whether it was the quick interplay down the left that allowed Pulisic to uncork an eighth-minute shot that forced Trinidad & Tobago goalkeeper Marvin Phillip to concede a corner, a pass from the middle of the field to Alejandro Bedoya in space down the left in the 25th-minute or his 62nd-minute assist for Altidore’s second goal, Pulisic made a nuisance of himself all evening.
“He is dynamic. He can go inside and outside of the player,” said T&T head coach Stephen Hart of Pulisic. “The goal he set up was a good example. He carved the defender inside, went on the outside of him and played a beautiful ball to the back post. I feel he has a lot of potential for a young player. The rest is going to be seen as he develops.”