COMMERCE CITY, Colo. — As the U.S. national soccer team boarded the bus after a mandatory victory Thursday on the World Cup qualifying campaign, a sunset of brilliant orange and red drenched the white-capped Rocky Mountains in breathtaking color.
The rich panorama beyond the west end of Dick’s Sporting Goods Park was among two engrossing sights on this early-summer evening in suburban Denver.
Inside the gates, Christian Pulisic glowed.
The luminous attacker with skills and command belying his 18 years scored twice in the 2-0 triumph over Trinidad and Tobago — a result that put the Americans back on pace for a 2018 World Cup berth in Russia.
While the goals were vital in subduing a stubborn opponent, Pulisic’s performance underscored something larger at work: Fifteen appearances into his international career, he is the conductor of the attack and the most menacing player in the lineup. The ball runs through him.
It’s not his team yet. But with Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey well into their 30s and Michael Bradley nearing the crossroads, that time is near.
“We’re not playing in an age-group competition,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “No one cares how old you are.”
Said Pulisic: “Everyone asks me questions about my age, but that doesn’t matter anymore.”
In the wake of a pulsating second-half performance Thursday, Pulisic will brace for the most daunting test of his blossoming career: Sunday’s visit to historic Estadio Azteca for a showdown against regional kingpin Mexico.
The Americans (2-2-1) have never won a qualifier in Mexico City and, despite upbeat results in recent months under a new coach, they will again face long odds against the first-place Mexicans (4-0-1).
“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.”
Mexico is aware of Pulisic’s capacity and surely will employ the same physical tactics that Panama (in March) and Trinidad and Tobago used in attempting to disrupt his rhythm. On Thursday, the Soca Warriors tossed Pulisic to the ground less than two minutes into the action.
While he is adapting to the unforgiving ploys of international soccer, Pulisic is taking on greater responsibility. Arena is now having him take free kicks and corner kicks.
At first, Arena said, his young pupil was reluctant.
“I said to him, ‘If I get fired because you can’t hit free kicks and corners, I’m okay with it.’”
Asked about the new tasks, Pulisic couldn’t understand why anyone would want to talk about them. Pressed on it, he answered with teenage attitude, making a slight face and saying, “I guess I have to start taking more responsibility now that I am part of the team.”
Other players took greater responsibility Thursday. Darlington Nagbe, whose skill set rivals Pulisic’s, created the first goal with tidy ball control, speed and vision. The pair was instrumental in unlocking the T&T defense after a frustrating first half.
“When we freed up Darlington and Christian, the game opened up,” striker Jozy Altidore said. “We allowed them to be creative and do what they do.”
Pulisic said of Nagbe: “When he’s on his game and he’s gliding past players, it helps us so much.”
As the team turned attention to the Mexico match, speculation turned to the lineup and, among other issues, how Arena will use Pulisic.
Arena said he will make changes, citing the physical demands of playing two matches in four days at altitude and the array of challenges of competing in Mexico City (beginning with higher elevation and a stronger opponent).
He might have offered a clue in the second half Thursday when he withdrew Dempsey and inserted defensive midfielder Kellyn Acosta to pair with Bradley. The move was also designed, Arena explained, to push Pulisic higher in the attack, just behind Altidore.
In the March qualifiers, Arena played Pulisic in central midfield at home and on the right wing on the road.
A decision about the front line is also in the works: One or two forwards? Bobby Wood instead of Altidore or Dempsey?
One unexpected issue surfaced Thursday: Dempsey did not take kindly to his removal early in the second half, brushing off Arena’s hand and exchanging words. Afterward, Arena said he understood Dempsey’s reaction but, to improve the team’s situation, he had to remove one of the forwards.
Dempsey remains one goal behind Landon Donovan on the program’s career scoring chart. He was terrific in the March qualifiers but labored in the first half Thursday.
Perhaps Arena did him a favor by conserving his energy — and potential record-tying goal — for Sunday’s match in one of the sport’s fabled venues.
“Bruce has a different game plan for Azteca,” Altidore said. “Everybody is aware of that, everybody is ready for that. He’s a smart guy. We planned for it. We’re going to give it a real go.”