COMMERCE CITY, COLO. – This was supposed to be the lighter assignment in a compact stretch of 2018 World Cup qualifiers, a home task undertaken by a full-strength lineup tangling with a last-place foe before venturing into an archrival’s den this weekend.
It didn’t stay that way much longer.
The ringleader was, to the surprise of fewer and fewer observers here and abroad, the unit’s youngest member, 18-year-old Christian Pulisic, who scored twice in a 10-minute span for a 2-0 victory.
The Hershey, Pa., midfielder was the beneficiary of elegant work by teammates in the 52nd minute and finished an angled opportunity in the 62nd to continue a spellbinding start to his international career.
Pulisic, who plays professionally for German titan Borussia Dortmund, has scored four goals in his past four U.S. appearances and seven in 15 matches since joining the senior squad 15 months ago.
“Just being out there, it’s like a dream of mine to wear the USA crest, just to be playing for the country,” he said. “The fact that these goals are coming is a little bonus. I still can’t believe I’m out there.”
With a victory at the midway point of the schedule, the United States (2-2-1, seven points) moved into third place in CONCACAF’s six-nation final round. Mexico (4-0-1, 13 points) is first, followed by Costa Rica (2-1-2, eight).
Three teams will earn automatic berths in next summer’s World Cup in Russia, with a fourth entering a playoff.
By dodging a scare against Trinidad and Tobago (1-4-0, three points), the Americans will feel a whole lot better about their visit to Estadio Azteca on Sunday to face front-running Mexico. They’ve never won a qualifier in Mexico City.
“Because we got three points tonight,” Coach Bruce Arena said, “We can go there a little bit relaxed and try to have a good tactical approach to the game and try to come out of there with at least a point.”
On Pulisic’s first goal, Darlington Nagbe unlocked T&T’s midfield with tight footwork and initiative. He played a combination with Clint Dempsey at the top of the box and tracked the return pass before touching the ball to DeAndre Yedlin for a piercing cross into the six-yard box. A sliding Pulisic guided it into the net from four yards.
"The legend continues!" Pulisic breaks the deadlock with his 6th #USMNT goal after great work from Nagbe. #USAvTRI https://t.co/00LKULYmuf— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 9, 2017
T&T’s Nathan Lewis appeared to equalize a moment later but was ruled offside.
On the second goal, Pulisic led the charge out of the U.S. end before connecting with Yedlin, who supplied Jozy Altidore. The big striker’s through ball met Pulisic in stride on the right side of the box. Jan-Michael Williams cut down the angle, but Pulisic beat him to the near post.
Can't stop. Won't stop. Christian Pulisic. #USMNT #USAvTRI https://t.co/fLWUJH2uTr— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) June 9, 2017
A moment before the goal, Arena had removed Dempsey in order to reinforce the defensive midfield. Dempsey, who is one goal short of tying Landon Donovan’s program record, left the field without shaking Arena’s hand and appeared to have words with the coach.
“He wants to be on the field,” Arena said. “However, my job is to do what I think is right for the team to position us to win a game. I understand that. He’s a very competitive guy. We talked about it. He’s okay.”
Dempsey declined to comment.
The Americans took a while to find their bearings against T&T, which put nine players behind the ball and clogged the central artery. They began to create chances but had nothing to show for it.
The best opportunity belonged to the Soca Warriors as Kenwyne Jones beat Tim Howard to a high ball and headed off the crossbar in the 33rd minute.
Williams made consecutive quality saves on Jorge Villafaña and Altidore, and with T&T gaining confidence going forward, Howard had to turn away Khaleem Hyland’s low bid, leaving the match alarmingly scoreless for the Americans.
“I was frustrated,” Arena said. “I think we were frustrated.”
Then the second half began, and Pulisic and Co. got started. One goal and then another, a few T&T scares and a shot off the post by substitute Bobby Wood.
“Now we can go into Mexico with our minds clear,” Altidore said, “just go after it and try to get three points.”
Mexico 4-0-1, 13 points, +7 goal differential
Costa Rica 2-1-2, 8 points, +4
United States 2-2-1, 7 points, +3
Panama 1-1-3, 6 points, 0
Honduras 1-3-1, 4 points, -8
Trinidad and Tobago 1-4-0, 3 points, -6