DOHA, Qatar — If we’re at the point of examining strides and gait — and it certainly feels like we are — then it should be said that Christian Pulisic walked smoothly as he came through the door. There was no noticeable hitch, no limp, no gimp. There was no hesitation.
There was also no denying Pulisic’s confidence once he sat down. The United States are considerable betting underdogs against the Netherlands in Saturday’s World Cup round-of-16 match but Pulisic made it clear the players have no intention of doing anything but advancing.
“I truly believe that we can play anybody and we can beat anybody,” Pulisic told ESPN on Friday at the team hotel. “We got out of the group, which we can be extremely proud of. But now that we’re here, we’re not just OK with doing that.”
He added: “We have such a strong group of guys here that it absolutely gives us confidence and also a bit of calmness that we have a good enough team to do this.”
If the US ultimately are able to pull off the upset against the Dutch, it is hard to imagine Pulisic not being at the heart of it. Yes, the “pelvic contusion” he suffered while scoring the game-winning goal against Iran was agonizing, but at this point it would be surprising if he doesn’t play Saturday. (Manager Gregg Berhalter said it “looks pretty good” for Pulisic at his news conference Friday.)
Pulisic made it clear he will do whatever it takes to be on the field. As the face of US Soccer for years, this is the moment he has been dreaming about since well before the disappointment of the 2017 disaster in Trinidad. That failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup only crystalized what Pulisic already suspected:
Taking the US on a World Cup run and feeling the emotion that comes with captivating his country feels like nothing he has experienced before.
“I want it to last as long as it can,” he said. “I want to make this something that we look back on for the rest of our lives.”
Pulisic has allowed himself some moments of reflection. The goal against Iran, when he sprinted into the goalmouth to blast home Sergino Dest‘s headed cross while Team Melli goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand‘s knee simultaneously collided with his pelvis, was an incredible juxtaposition of pride and pain.
Pulisic’s teammates didn’t actually celebrate because they were unsure why he was lying on the ground, and Pulisic — amid the nausea and dizziness — was mostly trying to confirm that the goal hadn’t been ruled out for some reason by the video assistant.
“I didn’t even think about taking a hit or being brave,” he said. “I just wanted the goal. … It was extremely painful, but it was all worth it to get the goal.”
Once he was able to stand and hobble toward the bench area, doctors told Pulisic he had to leave the stadium and go to a local hospital for tests. He was able to follow the end of the game on a phone — “brutal,” he said — and returned to the hotel before his teammates.
When the US players finally walked into the hotel near 2:30 a.m. to rousing cheers from family and friends, Pulisic was in the middle of the receiving line, taking video on his phone and screaming in a show of unbridled emotion that is rare from him.
“I was so proud. I’ve never been more proud of the group,” he said. “Seeing the joy on their faces, the celebrations … It was an unreal moment.”
In truth, from the minute he arrived in Qatar nearly three weeks ago, Pulisic has seemed lighter, more open, more at ease. There is no denying that he remains the team’s biggest star, but he made a point of highlighting the difference he feels between this iteration of the USMNT and previous versions.
Earlier in his career, Pulisic might have been one of the only national team players regularly participating in top European competitions. Even more, he was one of the only players fans could point to as the future of the US team.
Now, he is surrounded by players at that level. Players who play in the Premier League. Players who play in the Champions League. Players who are following the road he took and doing their best to leave even bigger footprints this time around.
It is a reality that makes Pulisic, and everyone around this US team, hopeful for what might be accomplished four years from now in a World Cup on home soil. It is a reality that makes a game like Saturday’s feel like an opportunity to make history even sooner.