Christian Pulisic absence in Japan loss emphasizes his importance to USMNT, and what health means at 2022 World Cup

Of all the gargantuan upsets involving the United States men’s national team over the years, from ransacking Portugal at the 2002 World Cup to losing at Panama in the most recent CONCACAF qualifiers, there may be none more stunning than the one that has developed in advance of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Today, USMNT fans are forced to admit Thomas Tuchel has arguably been a secret agent and precious ally.

Tuchel, the coach who angered US fans by stashing Christian Pulisic on the Chelsea bench for most of the first two months of the Premier League season, eventually fired for his stubborn nature amidst Chelsea’s floundering start.

While fans have shouted for Pulisic’s reintegration at Chelsea under Graham Potter, we were reminded Friday why his spot on the bench could instead be considered a great gift in advance of the trip to Qatar in November.

MORE: Full recap, analysis, commentary, and highlights from USMNT 2-0 loss to Japan

Fans in every sport joke about wanting to bubble-wrap their team’s best players in advance of the biggest competitions. Well, Tuchel took care of that for the US – prior to his early September firing – by granting Pulisic only 160 minutes of playing time through six league games. That’s 380 minutes of safety on the bench! How’s he going to get hurt there? Dropping a water bottle on his big toe?

The Americans need Pulisic on the field, on the left wing or in midfield. They need him badly. Without him in Friday’s 2-0 loss to Japan in the next-to-last pre-World Cup friendly, the team lacked direction, emphasis, confidence and finishing ability. He was not the only one missing. They also were without Yunus Musah, their best progressional player, and left back Jedi Robinson who might have been the team’s most consistent performer in World Cup qualifying.

Musah and Robinson are not with the team because of injuries that occurred before the US gathered in Germany. Reserves Cameron Carter-Vickers, Chris Richards and Tim Weah also are absent due to injury, along with goalkeeper Zack Steffen. This all presented a reminder of how important health will be at this World Cup, perhaps more so than any in history.

The typical World Cup is held in June and is arranged to begin roughly a month after traditional fall-to-spring leagues complete their seasons. Players who pick up minor injuries with their clubs have plenty of time to recover.
In this season, however, with the World Cup opening Nov. 20, the Premier League will play a round of games that concludes Nov. 13. That’s a week for national teams to prepare and players to heal. A player injured that day might be at risk of losing his World Cup position.

MORE: Player grades from USMNT 2-0 loss to Japan, including Matt Turner’s stellar performance

Pulisic is the most experienced, regular accomplished the team has and, at this point, is the most indispensable. He can play anywhere on the forward line or as an attacking place if the team needs help generating an attack. He has shown the ability to handle big moments both for his club (in the 2021 Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid) and his country (in the 2021 Nations League final and last November’s home qualifier against rival Mexico).

Down three starters, the USMNT struggled against Japan’s persistent pressure and created far more opportunities for the opposition (by turning over the ball) than for themselves. The two-goal margin of the Americans’ defeat did not reflect how much more dangerous Japan was through 90 minutes.

Pulisic’s injury, while unspecified by US Soccer, was not serious enough – according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle – to have kept him out of action if this had been a genuine World Cup game. But there’s only one more chance for the full team to play a competitive game before this international break concludes. The USMNT will take the field Tuesday against Saudi Arabia in Spain.

Having just turned 24 this week, Pulisic has played 51 times for his country and scored 21 goals. He was part of the team – one of the few bright parts of the team, to be honest – that blew the opportunity to appear at the 2018 World Cup by dropping a 2-1 result at Trinidad & Tobago when a scoreless draw would have gotten them to Russia.

MORE: USMNT has a lot of work to do before 2022 World Cup after friendly defeat to Japan

Those 51 caps are more than twice the average for the 11 players in the starting lineup against Japan. No one who started has more than player Weston McKennie’s nine international goals. It is a talented young team, but occasionally the youth becomes more obvious than the talent. That’s why Pulisic is so important.

“We’ve got work to do,” Berhalter said afterward. “We clearly need to improve.”

More than anything, though, they need to get and stay healthy.

Perhaps leaving striker Jordan Pefok out of these games – a controversial decision when it happened and even more so after this poor outing — is the best approach to preparing him for the World Cup. OK, the bubble-wrap idea is even better, but requiring him to play less can’t hurt.

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