Christian Pulisic’s absence from Japan loss highlights his importance to USMNT and what health means at 2022 World Cup


Of all the gargantuan upsets involving the United States men’s national team over the years, from the sack of Portugal at the 2002 World Cup to the loss to Panama in the last CONCACAF qualifiers, there are few. – be no more amazing than the one that developed before the 2022 soccer world cup.

Today, USMNT fans are forced to admit that Thomas Tuchel was undoubtedly a secret agent and a valuable ally.

Tuchel, the manager who angered American fans by planting Christian Pulisic on the Chelsea bench for most of the first two months of the Premier League season, was eventually sacked for his stubborn nature amid hesitant debut from Chelsea.

As fans cried out for Pulisic’s reinstatement at Chelsea under Graham Potter, we were reminded on Friday why his place on the bench could instead be seen as a big giveaway ahead of the November trip to Qatar.

AFTER: Full recap, analysis, commentary and highlights from USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Japan

Fans of all sports joke about wanting to pack their team’s best players ahead of the biggest competitions. Well, Tuchel took care of that for the United – before his dismissal in early September – by granting Pulisic just 160 minutes of playing time in six league games. That’s 380 minutes of safety on the bench! How will he get hurt there? Dropping a water bottle on his big toe?

The Americans need Pulisic on the pitch, on the left wing or in midfield. They need him badly. Without him in Friday’s 2-0 loss to Japan in the penultimate pre-World Cup friendly, the team lacked direction, focus, confidence and finishing ability. He wasn’t the only one missing. They were also without midfielder Yunus Musah, their best progressive midfielder; Tim Weah, their fastest striker, and left-back Jedi Robinson, who might have been the team’s most consistent performer in World Cup qualifying.

Musah, Weahand Robinson are out of the squad due to injuries that occurred ahead of the USA rally in Germany. Reserves Cameron Carter-Vickers and Chris Richards are also out through injury, along with goaltender Zack Steffen. All of this served as a reminder of how important health will be at this World Cup, perhaps more than ever in history.

The typical World Cup takes place in June and is scheduled to start about a month after the end of the traditional league seasons from autumn to spring. Players who sustain minor injuries with their clubs have plenty of time to recover.
This season, however, with the opening of the World Cup on November 20, the Premier League will play a series of games that will end on November 13. It’s a week for national teams to prepare and players to heal. A player injured that day could risk losing his place in the World Cup.

AFTER: Player ratings since USMNT’s 2-0 loss to Japan, including Matt Turner’s standout performance

Pulisic is the most experienced and accomplished regular in the team and, at this stage, he is the most indispensable. He can play anywhere on the forward line or as an attacking midfielder if the team needs help generating an attack. He has shown his ability to manage great moments both for his club (in the 2021 Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid) and for his country (in the 2021 Nations League final and the match last November’s home qualifier against rivals Mexico).

Trailing by three starters, the USMNT fought off persistent pressure from Japan and created far more chances for the opposition (by returning the ball) than for themselves. The Americans’ two-goal margin of loss did not reflect how much more dangerous Japan were for 90 minutes.

Pulisic’s injury, although not specified by US Soccer, was not serious enough – according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle – to have prevented him from playing if it was a real World Cup game. But there is only one chance for the whole team to play a competitive game before the end of this international break. The USMNT will take to the field on Tuesday against Saudi Arabia in Spain.

Having just turned 24 this week, Pulisic has played 51 times for his country and scored 21 goals. He was part of the team – one of the few brilliant parts of the team, to be honest – that missed out on a chance to feature at the 2018 World Cup when they lost a 2-1 result at Trinidad and Tobago while a scoreless draw would have got them in Russia.

AFTER: USMNT has a lot of work to do ahead of 2022 World Cup after friendly loss to Japan

Those 51 caps are more than double the average of the 11-man starting lineup against Japan. No starter has more than midfielder Weston McKennie’s nine international goals. It’s a talented young team, but sometimes the youth becomes more evident than the talent. This is why Pulisic is so important.

β€œWe have work to do,” Berhalter said afterwards. “We clearly have to improve.”

More than anything, however, they need to be and stay healthy.

Perhaps leaving striker Jordan Pefok out of those games – a controversial decision when it happened and even more so after that poor outing – is perhaps the best approach to getting him ready for the World Cup. OK, the bubble wrap idea is even better, but forcing him to play less can’t hurt.

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