A massive goal differential (12 goals!) advantage over Guatemala. A visiting opponent on Tuesday (Trinidad & Tobago) who've already clinched advancement to the next round of World Cup qualifying, and who have never, ever beaten them on US soil. A hospitable venue and city where they've never lost.
Even the most devoted number-crunchers will admit that the US national team will surely qualify for the Hexagonal round no matter what happens at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Florida on Tuesday night (8 pm ET; FS1, UniMás, UDN). That said, coach Jurgen Klinsmann has doggedly emphasized that “the job is still not done,” terming a win over T&T utterly vital in order to gain the right to host Mexico in the opening Hex match this fall.
But using that as justification to keep his top performers in the last game on the bench? That just doesn't quite ring true.
I'm talking about Sacha Kljestan and Christian Pulisic, of course. Yes, strikers Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood were solid up front in Friday's win over St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Matt Besler had his best US game in years, and Kyle Beckerman and Alejandro Bedoya minded the midfield shop with quiet effectiveness.
But the super-sub duo that came on with 25 minutes or so left and proceeded to slash the islanders to ribbons – they were the stars of that strange but compelling show on a distant cricket ground. They did have the benefit of a 3-0 lead, and tired legs in front of them. But Pulisic and Kljestan carved out three impressive goals to turn a workmanlike win into an exclamation point. Pulisic finished two goals off Kljestan assists while Kljestan had one of his own thanks the Hershey, Pennsylvania native.
Importantly, their quality buoyed the spirits of a USMNT fanbase still unsure of what to expect from this team even after a strong Copa America showing. Fans aren't always rational observers, but their passion does power this whole enterprise. And when you're trying to build excitement (and sell tickets) for important home qualifiers where the crowd really is the “12th man” – or not – then it's wise to keep at least one finger on the pulse of your community.
The faithful want to see Pulisic and Kljestan start, and it's hard to argue that they didn't earn that shot fair and square.
“Christian, as you guys saw, came in against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and did a fantastic job. He kind of really made it look all easy,” allowed Klinsmann on Sunday as he tried to soft-pedal what he admitted is “obviously a big topic for all of the fans” ahead of the T&T affair. (Mind you, he'd already uttered some vague doubts about Pulisic's match fitness after Friday's match.)
“Obviously we know he has tremendous talent, and that's why he is with Borussia Dortmund, a Champions League team in Europe. So we're going to build him one step at a time. A lot of people are anxious, obviously: Is he starting from the beginning on [Tuesday]? That day will come, no doubt about it. But for us coaches, it's important that we build a younger player with patience and not too much of a hype and too high of expectations as well. So be patient with this situation. We are thrilled that he's growing, that he's getting more mature, and please take it one step at a time.”
As for Kljestan, Klinsmann was restraint personified.
“It's a real pleasure to have Sacha Kljestan back with us,” he said. “That was his opportunity now to come back to the team and to make an impression, and his first impression that he made, especially in the field in St. Vincent, was very positive. And therefore we are happy how he presents himself here and how he builds his case.”
Yet in the very same Facebook video chat, the USMNT boss expressed at length his disappointment with others in Pulisic's generational cohort who have, in his view, failed to stake their case.
Speaking to a perceived lack of younger competition for goalkeepers Brad Guzan and Tim Howard, Klinsmann said: “As long as the younger ones are not stepping it up even more and pushing them – kind of pushing them out, basically – these two will defend their spots … we keep waiting. We keep waiting for the next generation of goalkeepers to step it up and to challenge these two very experienced ones.”
I long ago learned the futility of trying to judge Klinsmann's actions by his own stated standards. He's still a mercurial striker at heart, and for all his belief in cutting-edge technology, he often coaches – and speaks – by feel. And that's totally OK; most coaches do to one extent or another.
But he does himself and his entire program a disservice when he obscures or complicates the path by which a hungry player can haul himself in from the cold fringes, and gain a place in the cozy inner sanctum of those he trusts, like Jermaine Jones, Altidore and Bedoya.
It's true that Pulisic is just 17. And Kljestan only just got back into a USMNT kit after a two-year absence. But Klinsmann had enough faith to call them in, and give them caps in a must-win situation – and they took their chance with cold, clinical efficiency, to say nothing of their obvious chemistry together.
What else can they do?
“He's just a very good player. Despite his age, he's got a certain calmness to his game, and he sees the game very well,” Kljestan said of Pulisic when we talked on the phone Friday night. “So we were able to link up. I think it was pretty easy to just find each other on the field – also because we had fresh legs and fresh ideas. And it was pretty hot and humid and a lot of guys were tired, so for us to just move the ball quickly and move off the ball and find each other, it was a pleasure to play with him today.
“He's a great young kid with a bright future.”
Kljestan has played with some talented youngsters in his time, and he cuts to the heart of the matter with that “calmness” part. The United States' long litany of failed or underachieving young talents should not distract us from the specifics of Pulisic's case. He's simply wired with a quiet confidence that allows him to deploy exquisite technique at an advanced speed of thought, even in big moments, be it a Bundesliga match or a World Cup qualifier.
“Of course I'm ready to start,” Pulisic matter-of-factly told ESPNFC's Jeff Carlisle in St. Vincent. “If the moment comes, it comes. I'm just excited to get any minutes I can with this team.”
Klinsmann doesn't generally relent from his public stances, and there are some good reasons for that. But Pulisic's dynamism on the flank, and Kljestan's playmaking nous in the hole behind the strikers – these aren't garnishes on a finished product. These are crucial elements for a team that still lacks that proactive identity we've heard so much about.
Let's have a longer look.