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Christian Pulisic, the face of the USMNT, awaits his World Cup moment

“I’ve played in some big games. I’ve accomplished a lot,” Christian Pulisic said Wednesday. “I’ve done a lot of things I want to do, but the World Cup is something on top of all of that, and it’s something when I was a kid in Pennsylvania growing up, 5 to 10 years old, all I thought about was a World Cup, playing for the U.S. team in a World Cup.” (Ibraheem Al Omari/Reuters)

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Childhood dreams, unbridled and exciting, transported Christian Pulisic from the youth fields of central Pennsylvania to the immaculate pitches of the World Cup. They offered him visions of wearing a U.S. jersey, hand over heart as the national anthem boomed and teammates lined up in a neat row.

The fantasy then took him to kickoff, to an opponent of high esteem and to the opportunity to elevate American soccer from mid-major to menace.

Fanciful aspirations mature. Years pass, marked by enormous achievements in other arenas. The moment arrives.

“I’ve played in some big games. I’ve accomplished a lot,” Pulisic said Wednesday, five days before his expected World Cup debut. “I’ve done a lot of things I want to do, but the World Cup is something on top of all of that, and it’s something when I was a kid in Pennsylvania growing up, 5 to 10 years old, all I thought about was a World Cup, playing for the U.S. team in a World Cup. That’s just been a dream my whole life. I’m sure getting into that moment is going to be special.”

American hopes of making a mark in this competition do not fall entirely on Pulisic; he’s got a promising if inexperienced brigade around him. He is, though, the face of this team and the focus of both global attention and opponents’ cynical tactics.

“I don’t really want to add a comment that will put any more pressure on him because he knows what he can do,” said Gio Reyna, a 20-year-old forward. “I know what he can do. The whole team knows what he can do.”

It’s not as if Pulisic, a Chelsea attacker, has never played in a top event. He has won the UEFA Champions League, FIFA Club World Cup and German Cup; he also featured in three English FA Cup finals. In all, he has appeared in more than 250 matches with two esteemed European clubs.

The Premier League, considered the world’s best proving ground, has been his home since the summer of 2019. Before a U.S.-record $73 million transfer to Chelsea, he excelled with Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga.

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The World Cup, though, is a different beast, a once-every-four-year exam that draws billions of viewers and captures the attention of casual fans in the United States.

Pulisic was a young charge on a veteran squad that failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, ending a span of seven consecutive appearances. Though Pulisic was not the culprit, he carried the pain, anger and ultimately the motivation to atone for the U.S. failure.

His current teammates appreciate his drive and sense of responsibility to push the program to the next level. Employed by London-based Premier League clubs, Pulisic and Matt Turner, the U.S. team’s probable starting goalkeeper, have sat next to one another a few times on trips to and from U.S. assignments, including this past weekend.

“We were just talking a little bit about [the expectations on Pulisic] because I like to get to know people and what makes them tick,” said Turner, who joined Arsenal this summer from MLS’s New England Revolution. “And he’s just excited. He’s excited to be here. He felt the pain and the heartbreak of the last [qualifying campaign] very personally, I know. So for him to be here now, he’s excited to go and express himself and be on the world stage.”

They knew Christian Pulisic’s story before it even began

Though he’s the most well-known U.S. player — and the subject of marketing campaigns and TV ads — Pulisic said expectations carry no burden.

“I’m very excited for the moment,” he said during an interview session with reporters after training Wednesday. “This is the pinnacle of a lot of people’s careers, playing in a World Cup, representing their country. That’s what I’m here to do. I’m going to do the best I can and representing this country and hope I make everyone back home proud. That’s all I can really do. And as long as I do that, I can walk home proud.”

The U.S. Men’s World Cup squad will face off against Wales, Iran, and group favorite England in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Pulisic enters the World Cup as a star on his national team but a part-time starter for Chelsea. That status has not changed, even after a September coaching change led to Graham Potter replacing Thomas Tuchel.

Pulisic has appeared in 13 of 14 Premier League matches overall but made just three starts. His lone goal came against Wolverhampton Wanderers on Oct. 8. He started Chelsea’s third-round League Cup match and appeared in four of six Champions League group-stage games yet started just once.

Graphic: A closer look at the USMNT

Nonetheless, Pulisic likes what Potter has brought, saying: “The way he’s worked with the players and communicated has impressed me the most. And the guys have received him quite well. There’s going to be good things.”

Despite moderate playing time, Pulisic said he “feel great right now.”

“My form has actually been really good in recent weeks,” he said. “I’ve gotten some games in and continuing to work there and proving myself there. Honestly, I feel really strong and prepared going into this.”

U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter would have preferred Pulisic to log major minutes before the World Cup. Still, “we know the qualities Christian brings,” he said.

Playing time cuts both ways for Qatar-bound players. With just a one-week gap between leagues pausing and the World Cup starting, players starting regularly for their clubs were more vulnerable to being sidelined by injury. Several standouts, including Pulisic’s Chelsea teammate N’Golo Kante, will miss the tournament.

Pulisic dodged a scare in his final game before the break Saturday, when a Newcastle player bore down on him. As the key U.S. player, he undoubtedly will face the same challenges in Group B play against Wales, England and Iran.

He said did not realize the danger involved until he watched video afterward.

“I saw a highlight of a guy coming and trying to two-foot me, and I’m just thinking, ‘Wow, if he connects, that would have sucked,’ ” Pulisic said. “What can you do? I am playing the game. I’m passionate. I’m in the game. I want to win.”

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With the Premier League now paused, a boyhood dream is drawing closer.

“All those emotions, you’re not ready for, I guess,” Pulisic said. “It always hits you. It hits you, and you feel it. You feel the big moments coming every day. Laying in bed at night when it gets a day closer, you feel a little bit more.”

The U.S. men’s national team will be one of the youngest squads at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar and will feature many players new to the global tournament. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Notes: Right back Sergiño Dest had limited involvement in Wednesday’s training session as team officials manage his workload. He was sidelined by abductor fatigue before entering as a sub for AC Milan in a league match Sunday. . . .

About 1,000 representatives from the U.S. Embassy and two U.S. military bases in Qatar were invited by Berhalter to watch practice. Berhalter and midfielder Weston McKennie, the son of a U.S. serviceman, addressed the crowd.

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