Of all the titanic excitements that the United States men’s national team has been involved in over the years, from the sack of Portugal at the 2002 World Cup to losing to Panama in the last few CONCACAF qualifiers, there is perhaps none more amazing than the that developed before them, the 2022 World Cup.
Today USMNT fans have to admit that Thomas Tuchel was arguably a secret agent and valuable ally.
Tuchel, the manager who angered US fans by tucking Christian Pulisic on the Chelsea bench for most of the first two months of the Premier League season, eventually fired for his stubborn nature amid Chelsea’s rocky start.
As fans clamored for Pulisic’s rejoining at Chelsea under Graham Potter, on Friday we were reminded why his spot on the bench could instead be seen as a huge gift ahead of November’s trip to Qatar.
MORE: Full recap, analysis, commentary and highlights of USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Japan
Fans in all sports joke that they want to wrap their team’s best players in bubble wrap before the biggest competitions. Well, Tuchel made sure of that for the USA – ahead of his sacking in early September – by allowing Pulisic just 160 minutes of play in six league games. That’s 380 minutes of security on the bank! How will he hurt himself there? Dropping a water bottle on his big toe?
The Americans need Pulisic on the field, on the left wing or in midfield. You need him urgently. Without him in the 2-0 defeat by Japan on Friday in the penultimate friendly before the World Cup, the team lacked direction, assertiveness, self-confidence and the ability to finish. He wasn’t the only one missing. They were also without midfielder Yunus Musah, their top progressive midfielder; Tim Weah, their fastest forward, and left-back Jedi Robinson, who was perhaps the team’s most consistent player in World Cup qualifying.
#USMNT Touches in the first half…
🇬🇧 The Pulisic-shaped hole is back!
🇯🇵 Japan had 82 touches in the attacking third, versus 42 for the US pic.twitter.com/DTtOvq56SA
— Paul Carr (@PaulCarr) September 23, 2022
Musah, Weahand Robinson are not on the team due to injuries that occurred prior to the US deployment in Germany. Substitutes Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards are injured, as is goalkeeper Zack Steffen. All of this was a reminder of how important health will be at this World Cup, perhaps more so than at any other in history.
The typical World Cup takes place in June and is scheduled to start about a month after the conclusion of the traditional fall-spring leagues. Players who sustain minor injuries with their racquets have plenty of time to recover.
This season, however, the Premier League will have a round of matches with the opening of the World Cup on November 20th, ending on November 13th. This is a week for national teams to prepare and for players to heal. A player injured that day could risk losing his World Championship position.
MORE: Ratings from USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Japan, including Matt Turner’s outstanding performance
Pulisic is the team’s most experienced and skilled regular and the most indispensable at this point. He can play anywhere on the attacking line or as an attacking midfielder when the team needs help generating an attack. He has shown he can handle big moments for both his club (in the 2021 Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid) and his country (in the 2021 Nations League final and home qualifier against rivals Mexico last November).
The three-starter USMNT struggled against continued pressure from Japan, creating far more opportunities for opponents (by spinning the ball) than for themselves. The two-goal lead of the Americans’ loss didn’t reflect how much more dangerous Japan was in the 90 minutes was.
— The Analyst US (@OptaAnalystUS) September 23, 2022
Pulisic’s injury, which was not specified by US Soccer, was not serious enough to incapacitate him if this was an actual World Cup match, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle. But there is only one more chance for the entire squad to play a competitive game before this international break ends. The USMNT will play against Saudi Arabia in Spain on Tuesday.
Pulisic, who just turned 24 this week, has made 51 appearances for his country and has scored 21 goals. He was part of the team – frankly one of the few shiny parts of the team – that squandered an opportunity to feature at the 2018 World Cup by losing a 2-1 result at Trinidad & Tobago in a goalless draw would have her to Russia.
MORE: USMNT busy ahead of 2022 World Cup after friendly loss to Japan
Those 51 caps are more than double the average for the 11 players in the starting XI against Japan. No one in the starting XI has more than midfielder Weston McKennie’s nine international goals. It’s a talented young side but sometimes youth is more obvious than talent. That’s why Pulisic is so important.
“We have to work,” Berhalter said afterwards. “We clearly have to improve.”
Above all, however, they must become and remain healthy.
Perhaps the best approach to preparing him for the World Cup is to let forward Jordan Pefok out of those games – a controversial decision when it happened and even more so after that poor game. OK, the bubble wrap idea is even better, but asking him to play less can’t hurt.