Think back to the beginning of last summer. Before the Copa America Centenario. The hottest topic surrounding the USMNT was the dynamic duo of Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe. A scintillating goal in the final warmup friendly against Bolivia showcased just how much potential both players possess. With the national team knee-deep in a hole, it’s time for Bruce Arena to tap into that potential to help dig them out.
The moment last summer, Pulisic’s first ever international goal, was a strong sign of the next generation of the USMNT player pool arriving. Unfortunately, that would be the highlight of the pairing’s summer as they didn’t get anything but a few random substitute appearances in that Copa America.
The reason that goal brought on so much optimism is the skill sets both players put on display to score it. Dribbling in tight areas, perfect first and second touches, clinical and clean precision from pass to pass to finish. That’s the type of technical quality that the U.S. national team has severely lacked for a long time. The U.S. player pool is stacked with midfielders and/or wingers like Alejandro Bedoya or Graham Zusi who can run all day and not totally embarrass the team (aside from the occasional first touch that makes you wonder how they are professional soccer players). But, they lack that little bit of quality that allows for those intricate and precise plays in tight spaces. Nagbe and Pulisic both possess that special quality and both need to be given the chance to utilize it.
Heading into these crucial World Cup qualifiers, the word on everyone’s mind is pragmatism. Three points are an absolute necessity for the U.S. on Friday night against Honduras. The temptation to rely on veteran players who have played in tough matches will be there. But at what point does talent usurp experience? There is a happy-medium to be found to allow players like Nagbe and Pulisic to be inserted into the lineup without affecting the team’s preparedness or mindset. Not every player in Friday’s starting lineup has to be a grizzled veteran. This team has plenty of them littered around the lineup. From Tim Howard to Clint Dempsey to Michael Bradley to Jozy Altidore (maybe even DaMarcus Beasley), there are veterans there to be the foundation for the more inexperienced, talented players to have a place.
With the news that both Fabian Johnson and Bobby Wood have suffered injuries severe enough to keep them out of these matches, the U.S. are lacking true difference makers. Both of these players have proven with their clubs that they can be just that. Whether it’s with a timely goal to help Borussia Dortmund into the Champions League quarterfinals or a simple but effective dribble take-on and pass for the Portland Timbers that goes unnoticed by the stats sheet. Both players can use their technical ability help create chances for teammates or carve out something for themselves in tight spots.
We have yet to see what a full-strength lineup under Bruce Arena will look like. There comes a point in time when you have to put difference makers on the field for the betterment of the team. Nagbe and Pulisic have the ability to be difference makers, especially if paired together. This is not to say that they’ll single-handedly win matches for the USMNT, but they will make the team’s attack significantly more dangerous than the alternatives would.
It wouldn’t be shocking at all to see one or both of them on the bench while lesser players like a Bedoya or Zusi get the start. It’s human nature to lean on what you know. We saw it with Jurgen Klinsmann and you can’t blame Arena if he does the same in a must-win scenario. But, there’s a glimmer of hope that both Nagbe and Pulisic have proven over this last nine months or so that they are capable of producing magical moments and that Arena will take the chance of relying on them. It would be foolish to say that winning or losing is dependent on one scenario or the other coming to fruition, but it sure would be a sight for sore eyes to see both in the starting lineup come Friday night.