COMMERCE CITY — The player who’s quickly becoming the face of United States soccer looks and sounds like he could be your next Lyft driver.
He’s stubble faced, slight of frame and soft spoken.
“I still can’t believe I’m out there,” 18-year-old Christian Pulisic said after scoring both of the U.S. men’s national team’s goals in a 2-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Thursday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.
The goals came in the second half — 10 minutes apart from each other — in what was a vital win for the U.S. as it attempts to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
After it was over, a pack of reporters mobbed Pulisic in the tunnel that led toward the U.S. team bus. It was the rare occasion when the reporters towered over the athlete — and not the other way around.
“It’s not just scoring goals,” the 5-foot-8, 140-pound Pulisic said. “Just being out there, it’s like a dream of mine to wear the USA crest, just to be playing for the country. The fact that these goals are coming is a little bonus.”
If Thursday’s performance was any indication, the shock of “just being out there” should wear off soon.
The U.S. played a shaky first half. Trinidad and Tobago nearly went into halftime up 1-0 after a Kenwyne Jones header bounced off the crossbar in the 33rd minute. The U.S. needed to break through. Pulisic did it for them.
His first goal came in the 52nd minute. He timed a run through the heart of the Trinidad and Tobago defense well and finished off a nifty passing sequence his teammates strung together.
Pulisic struck again in the 62nd minute, this time beating Trinidad and Tobago goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams with a strike to the near post.
“He’s having fun,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said afterward. “I just think he’s a natural for the game. He sees the game very well. Has good instincts on how to get in good spots. His runs off the ball are exceptional.”
In 15 months with the senior squad, Pulisic, who plays professionally for the German power Borussia Dortmund, has already netted seven goals. He’s scored four times in his last four games with the U.S. and has earned enough trust from Arena that he’s empowered his young pupil to take command of set pieces.
“I gave him the responsibility to take free kicks and corners, and he wasn’t sure,” Arena said. “I said, ‘If I get fired because you can’t take free kicks and corners, I’m OK with that. So just go ahead and do it.'”
With the win, the U.S. (2-2-1, seven points) moved into third place at the halfway point of the Hexagonal, which pits six CONCACAF teams against each other in the final round of World Cup qualifying. Mexico (4-0-1, 13) is first, and Costa Rica (2-1-2, eight) is second.
The top three teams get automatic bids to the World Cup, while fourth place must win a play-in game to qualify.
“These games are tough,” said Arena, who began a second stint as head coach of the U.S. men’s team in November. “And we walk away with three points and two goals. We’ve started off 2017 in pretty good shape.”
On Sunday, the U.S. faces Mexico in Estadio Azteca. The U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier in Mexico City. Pulisic will get his first taste of what it’s like to play there with the senior team.
“Mexico is not easy to beat at home, so it’s going to take a lot,” Pulisic said. “But with the guys we have and the confidence we have, there’s no reason we can’t do it.”
He figures to be in the starting lineup, trying to make plays and taking charge of set pieces — a responsibility he still seems a little sheepish about.
“I guess I have to start taking more responsibility now,” Pulisic said.
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