Never has American men’s soccer witnessed such a momentous, beautiful bull rush.
Because that’s what it was, really. Christian Pulisic, who at 24 looks destined to be remembered as the most accomplished U.S. men’s soccer player in history, was still chasing the one moment that eluded him: scoring in a World Cup. So, in his first World Cup, in a win-or go-home affair against geopolitical rival Iran on Tuesday, Pulisic chased after that goal harder than any American male player that came before him.
If Team USA can somehow create some more magic in the knockout round of the Qatar World Cup—much stranger things, remember, have happened in sports—its success can be traced directly back to Pulisic’s effort against Iran. In the 38th minute, Weston McKennie lofted a ball into the right side of the penalty area; mid-flight, Pulisic astutely started streaking toward the goal from the left side, like an NFL running back headed for the end-zone. McKennie’s ball found the head of Sergiño Dest, who guided it across the box to Pulisic, who split two Iranian defenders.
Now, the World Cup dreams of two nations, perennially at odds with one another, came down to a split-second foot race between Pulisic and Iran keeper Alireza Beiranvand. Beiranvand moved to his right, to stunt both Pulisic’s near-range shot and his momentum.
But Pulisic refused to stop his bull rush. He got to the top of the goal area, flicked the ball into the net at full speed, and crashed square into Beiranvand’s knee and stomach, sending both men tumbling into the turf. Pulisic, the only American to ever appear in a Champion’s League Final, got his goal, and the United States got a 1-0 lead it would never relinquish. Team USA earned a place in the round of 16, against the Group A champion Netherlands, on Saturday. A crushed Iran side exited the World Cup.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 29, 2022
Less courageous players might have eased up a bit on that charge, to save their body from sure pain. But like a centerfielder in baseball crashing into an outfield wall to make the catch, Pulisic sacrificed his anatomy, for the good of team and country. No matter what the U.S. does from here, that goal will carry its fair share of lore.
He returned to the pitch for the remainder of the first half but didn’t play in the second. The Chelsea winger suffered a pelvic contusion scoring the goal and went to a hospital for scans. Pulisic said on social media, from a hospital bed, that he will be ready to play Saturday against the Netherlands.
The United States needs him. Pulisic’s teammates have commented on how he’s remained locked in during this entire World Cup. He’s put his exceptional skills on display during the U.S.’s first two games and was knocking on the door of the scoring column. His star turn, giving the U.S. men their most consequential victory in more than a decade, was years in the making.
Born in Hershey, Pa, Pulisic has credited his parents for his soccer prowess. To prevent burnout, they largely shunned the travel soccer scene. “A lot of kids, their parents force them to play on some team where they have to travel super far everyday,” he told TIME in a 2017 interview. “I think that makes it worse because they don’t realize their kid isn’t enjoying it at all. Let kids be kids.”
He moved to Germany before his 16th birthday; given that his grandfather was Croatian, he could play professionally starting at age 16 rather than 18. Pulisic signed with Borussia Dortmund’s youth program. He was soon playing for the top team, and he became the youngest non-German to ever score a goal in the Bundesliga, at 17. In 2019, the English Premier League’s Chelsea signed Pulisic for a $73 million transfer fee. With the London club, Pulisic became the first American to play in a Champions League Final in 2021. He’s had a rollercoaster season with Chelsea this year, coming off the bench in a majority of games.
That’s all pretty much forgotten now. Five years ago, Pulisic, when he was just 19, was on the field in Trinidad when the United States lost to Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. In that 2017 TIME interview, which took place a week after the devastating loss, Pulisic hung up on this reporter rather than discuss that heartbreaking result. His devastation was understandable.
Five years later, he’s known as Captain America—a nickname he said he doesn’t enjoy, for understandable reasons. One, the U.S. team has a fine captain of its own, Tyler Adams, who expertly fended off aggressive questioning from the Iranian media before the U.S.-Iran matchup.
A second, it’s kind of cheesy.
But the moniker represents his importance to U.S. soccer, now and in the future. If Pulisic can indeed play on in Qatar, anything is possible for America.