List the reasons for why the United States failed to reach the World Cup and the monumental disaster feels less like a tragedy and more like something deserved.
It’s not as if anyone outside of this country was trembling with anticipation to watch Bruce Arena deploy another five-man back line or Tim Howard start again at goalkeeper within a year of his 40th birthday.
Except there is one a significant downside to the United States’ exclusion from the world’s greatest sporting event: Christian Pulisic, the best player ever born in this country, will have to wait another four years to play in his first World Cup.
“I want to be in the World Cup one day,” Pulisic said. “It’s my biggest dream as a soccer player. I always wanted to play in a World Cup. You could imagine how I feel about it.”
Rather than prepare to realize that dream, the 19-year-old attacking midfielder will play a couple of exhibition matches in the United States over the coming week, the first of them on Tuesday night with his club team from Germany, Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic’s team will take on LAFC at Banc of California Stadium.
Pulisic will then join the U.S. national team, which will host Bolivia on May 28 in Pulisic’s home state of Pennsylvania.
A huge downer, considering what he should be doing instead.
Pulisic shouldn’t be here. He doesn’t deserve to be here.
“It’s going to hurt for a long time – until, pretty much, we qualify for the next World Cup,” Pulisic said.
The U.S. was eliminated from the tournament in October following a loss to Trinidad and Tobago. Dortmund midfielder Nuri Sahin said Pulisic returned to Germany noticeably dejected.
“He was really down,” Sahin said. “He’s hungrier now and I’m sure he will lead USA to many tournaments.”
Speaking Monday morning in the conference room of a beachside hotel in Santa Monica, Pulisic noted that his unexpected summer vacation might allow him to watch LeBron James in person if the Cleveland Cavaliers reach the NBA Finals.
“Big LeBron fan,” Pulisic said.
Similar to how a loss by the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals would be viewed as an indictment of James’ supporting cast, the U.S.’s inability to reach the World Cup was blamed on the players around Pulisic.
Pulisic was the team’s youngest player but at times its sole provider of offense. He was spared of any criticism in the wake of the United States’ elimination, and rightfully so.
He was fearless, which allowed him to remain the team’s focal point of attack when opponents resorted to more physical means to stop him. The kind of tactics that bothered Landon Donovan didn’t bother the 5-foot-8 Pulisic.
“I try not to change the way I play based on the opponent or how they’re playing,” Pulisic said.
What became evident over the failed qualifying campaign was that Pulisic was the player Donovan promised to be but never was, a bona fide world-class attacker from the United States.
“I just see myself as any other player,” Pulisic said. “I get the label that people put on me in the U.S. They’re always looking for that next big star. We haven’t had a real, real big one and people expect a lot of me. I just try to play for myself and for the people I care about, people around me, so it’s not something that bothers me.”
The U.S. has started the process of building a team around Pulisic for the next World Cup qualifying cycle. The average age of the players on the 22-man roster for the Bolivia game next week is 22.
Other than Pulisic, there are three players who play in Germany: midfielders Weston McKinnie and Julian Green, and forward Josh Sargent.
Sargent is 18, McKinnie 19 and Green 22.
“I think the Bundesliga is especially a good league for developing younger players, and for Americans, it’s been a good platform to just take it to that next step,” Pulisic said. “I know in Dortmund, they always just gave me a chance. They put me in a few minutes here and there, whatever. They gave me the chance in important games and they weren’t afraid to do that. That’s what’s really helped me grow, become the player I am.”
As a veteran of 20 international matches, Pulisic said he is ready to take on a greater leadership role on the national team. His experience in the regional qualifiers for the World Cup provided him with lessons to share.
“About how CONCACAF can be, about some of the games, about how it’s not just always about who plays the best football, it’s about who wants it the most and just how to fight and do whatever it takes,” he said.
He can also call on his experience at Dortmund. The recently completed 2017-18 season presented more obstacles than his breakout 2016-17 campaign. Dortmund changed coaches midseason and barely finished in fourth place to qualify for the European Champions League.
Pulisic solidified his place as one of the team’s first-choice attackers, starting 27 games in the Bundesliga, up from 15 the previous season. He had four goals and five assists in the league.
The increased profile has created speculation he could be on the move this winter, perhaps to a team in England such as Liverpool or Tottenham. Pulisic wouldn’t say what he wanted.
“Right now, I’ve been happy at Dortmund,” he said. “It was a season with a lot of ups and downs, but I enjoyed it. Of course, you never know what happens in professional sports, but right now, I’m looking to finish up the season strong with Dortmund and kind of enjoying my break.”
A break he shouldn’t have.