Christian Pulisic, the USMNT’s face, has become its catalyst and leader: ‘People want to follow him’

ARLINGTON, Texas — Back in the Golden Boy days, when Christian Pulisic’s voice was gentle and his thick, dark hair always kempt, there were times when he would defer.

He was already the face of the U.S. men’s national team as a teenager. But when he first tugged on a captain’s armband, at age 20, he “didn’t really know what to do.” So he tried to lead by example, which can sometimes be euphemistic for not really leading at all. He would often cede the floor and responsibility to USMNT elders, in part out of respect, in part because he was an introverted young adult still trying to find his place in the world.

But over the past five years, Pulisic has found himself. He has become the "Captain America" that his country craved. He has become its goal-creator-in-chief but also its cornerstone, a 25-year-old who is “very comfortable with who he is, very comfortable within this group, and a leader in his way, in his own way, an authentic leader,” as his head coach, Gregg Berhalter, said on the eve of the 2024 Copa América.

His leadership was on display in the USMNT’s Copa opener, and throughout this month, perhaps more so than ever before.

He propelled his team to a stabilizing draw with Brazil on June 12, then belted them into an early lead against Bolivia on Sunday.

“That,” teammate Tyler Adams told Yahoo Sports after Pulisic led the USMNT to a 2-0 win, “was a captain's performance.”

And Adams added: “Everyone's gonna talk about the goal and the assist that he had, but what he did [defensively] was so important for our team. Because when people see players like [Pulisic] doing that, everyone wants to do it.”

His leadership, however, is no longer solely a function of peerless talent and his play. Yes, Pulisic is playing the best soccer of his life, but he knows his work doesn’t end when a whistle blows and lights dim. He knows that part of his job is “expecting more out of [teammates], demanding the highest level at all times,” whether at their hotel or on the training pitch. He has always tried to do that with actions; in recent years, he has learned to do it with carefully chosen words as well.

“He's just more vocal. He's a lot louder,” Tim Ream said when asked how Pulisic has grown into the captaincy. “He speaks his mind a lot more, and drives the standards, and demands more from everybody.”

And when he speaks, several teammates have said, everybody listens.

When they drape their arms around one another in their locker room minutes before kickoff, and when Berhalter cedes the floor to Pulisic for a concise pregame speech, “people look at him, people listen,” Adams said. “And people want to follow him.”

ARLINGTON, TEXAS - JUNE 23: Christian Pulisic of United States reacts during the CONMEBOL Copa America 2024 Group C match between United States and Bolivia at AT&T Stadium on June 23, 2024 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images)
Steadily but surely, Christian Pulisic has found his voice on the U.S. men's national team, and grown into the captain's armband that once felt oversized. (Photo by Sam Hodde/Getty Images) (Sam Hodde via Getty Images)

For as long as Pulisic and those around him can remember, he has been a relatively shy, reticent person. He was almost always the best player on his soccer teams as a pre-teen and teen, but he was “rarely” the captain, he said in a 2022 book. So when an interim coach handed Pulisic the USMNT armband in 2018, it didn’t exactly fit naturally.

When Berhalter took charge a couple months later, he began to delegate responsibility among a “leadership council.” Pulisic was a member but not the figurehead. He wore the armband occasionally but not always. At 20 or 21, he didn’t need nor necessarily want the captaincy, which can double as a privilege and a burden. He was a leader in that peers looked up to him, and looked to him for impetus on the field. But he wasn’t, and has never been an outgoing human connector or an aggressive, rah-rah speaker.

In that sense, he has never been Tyler Adams.

“I yell at everyone 24/7,” Adams said Sunday with a smile.

Adams is the quintessential captain, and was chosen by his teammates to take the armband throughout the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

Over the 18 months since, though, Adams has often been injured and absent. Pulisic has been ever-present. He has seized the role, and adapted to it, and put his own stamp on it.

He is still “not the most vocal guy,” as goalkeeper Ethan Horvath said. “But to be a captain, you don't have to be the most vocal.” Pulisic has met the role in the middle, staying true to himself, while picking and choosing his moments to speak up.

After last year’s CONCACAF Nations League semifinal, a fiery 3-0 win over Mexico, he sat at his locker shirtless, and sensed that the vibe was a bit too triumphant. As interim coach B.J. Callaghan implored players to enjoy the victory, Pulisic interjected: “And be humble with it, guys. Enjoy it tonight, enjoy it tonight, but we’re here to win the final. We’re here to beat Canada.”

“That’s a great point,” Callaghan said.

Sure enough, three days later, they gathered arm in arm in the same locker room. “Christian, take us away,” Callgahan said in the pre-match huddle. Pulisic offered three calm sentences. Then he led them onto the field, where they beat Canada.

Because he is a man of few words, the ones he does utter can feel more meaningful. And sometimes, he hardly has to speak to transmit what he wants or feels. Sometimes, Ream said, “you see the look on his face.” At other times, you simply have to watch him fly around the field, and follow him.

“He's a guy,” midfielder Luca de la Torre told Yahoo Sports, “that leads through performances.”

He led in the aftermath of the USMNT’s embarrassing 5-1 loss to Colombia earlier this month.

Four days later, he came out swinging against Brazil, first with a hard foul, then with a goal from a free kick.

“He sets a really good tone,” Berhalter said — in matches, and in practice.

“He's a selfless leader,” Berhalter added a day later. “He goes out and just competes, and works really hard, and then helps the team. And then you add to [that] the fact that he is highly skilled, and he can make plays on the offensive end, and create chances on the offensive end, it's a great combination. And then what you see is him supporting his teammates, him backing guys, him pushing guys.”

He did all of that Sunday here at AT&T Stadium. Coming off the best season of his still-somewhat-young career at AC Milan in Italy, he kicked off the Copa América with a lovely goal in less than three minutes. He later assisted Folarin Balogun’s goal, which put the game to bed just before halftime.

And after halftime, he seemed to speak positivity into Ricardo Pepi after one of Pepi’s several missed chances. “As a striker, the problem is when you don't get chances,” Pulisic said postgame of Pepi. “He's gonna score in a big moment.”

He led the USMNT with actions and words, towards three points, and with emotion. He was asked about the source of that emotion an hour after the match, and he almost chuckled at the question, as if the answer was obvious.

“It's Copa América. It's a big tournament,” he said. So of course, as Captain America, he is going to rise to the occasion. “This,” Pulisic said, “is a big moment.”