SAN JOSE, Calif. — One man is 34. The other is 18. One man is near the end of his historic national team career. The other is just at the start of a journey that has no limits of what it could become.
But on the night the U.S. got its groove back, the connection between Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic transcended age and experience and boiled down to the most elemental part of this beautiful game. Here were two American jazz men—one from Nacogdoches, Tex.; the other from Hershey, Pa.—riffing with each other all night long, connecting in ways that suggested this wasn’t the first time they had started a game together, even though it was.
This was sexy football, American style.
The scoreboard would end up reading USA 6, Honduras 0 in Friday’s World Cup qualifier at Avaya Stadium, a result that brought the U.S. from sixth place to fourth place in the Hexagonal standings, just like that. But the moments that set your pulse racing came when Pulisic set up Dempsey on two exquisite goals, part of Dempsey’s hat trick on the night.
On the first, with the U.S. up 2-0 in the first half, Pulisic hit a delicate lob that hit Dempsey’s right shoulder, whereupon Dempsey bulled his way into the Honduras box with defensive contact happening the entire time. It didn’t matter. Dempsey slammed it into the upper right corner.
On the second, with the U.S. leading 4-0 in the second half, Pulisic paused on the ball in the Honduran end. Dempsey made a darting run toward the goal, and you could see the gap between the defenders that Pulisic saw and instantly exploited. The pass was something magical, a perfectly weighted ball on the ground that met Dempsey in stride and made his finish seem like an extension of one intuitive movement from both men.
It was a beautiful thing.
U.S. coach Bruce Arena, hoping to make an emphatic statement in his first World Cup qualifier since 2005, decided to start Dempsey earlier this week after it became clear that Jordan Morris wasn’t healthy enough to go. Dempsey had been out for six months–and nine from the national team–due to an irregular heartbeat that could have ended his playing career, but Arena said Dempsey and the Seattle Sounders fitness coaches had done the work to show he could play 90 minutes on Friday if needed.
As for Pulisic, Arena opted to start him centrally instead of out wide.
“Against this particular opponent, we were going to play two strikers and someone underneath them,” Arena said afterward. “We had to win this game and have an aggressive attacking concept to break down a team that defends very well and gets good numbers behind the ball in good spots on the field.”
“So we had to have a number of players in advanced positions. Christian’s been playing in that spot a lot for Dortmund. I hate using these terms, but they kind of play with two No. 10s underneath a No. 9, and he’s been playing there [at No. 10] recently. And I think he’s been exceptional the last couple months with his club team. It’s clearly a position he’s played a lot, and I felt it was the right decision to make.”
Christian Pulisic: Budding career of USA, Borussia Dortmund's rising star
Christian Pulisic of the USA celebrates his goal as William Patching of England reacts during the Nike International Friendlies at The Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch on Nov. 28, 2014 in Sarasota, Fla.
Christian Pulisic of the USA scores the opening goal during the FIFA U-17 Men's World Cup 2015 group A match between USA and Croatia at Estadio Sausalito on Oct. 20, 2015 in Vina del Mar, Chile.
Christian Pulisic and Felix Passlack of Borussia Dortmund arrival at the international airport in Dubai for their training camp on Jan. 7, 2016 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund with a header against Tin Jedvaj of Bayer Leverkusen on Feb. 21, 2016.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund watches as his shot flies past Ralf Faehrmann of FC Schalke 04 and wide of the post at Veltins-Arena on April 10, 2016 in Gelsenkirchen, Germany.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund celebrates after scoring the opening goal during the Bundesliga match against Hamburger SV at Signal Iduna Park on April 17, 2016 in Dortmund, Germany.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund celebrates after scoring the opening goal together with his teammate Felix Passlack during the Bundesliga match against Hamburger SV at Signal Iduna Park on April 17, 2016 in Dortmund, Germany.
Christian Pulisic of the USA attempts to drive past Diego Bejarano of Bolivia during the second half of an international friendly soccer match at Children's Mercy Park on May 28, 2016 in Kansas City.
Christian Pulisic of the USA attempts to chip a pass past Guillermo Viscarra of Bolivia late in the second half of an international friendly match at Children's Mercy Park on May 28, 2016 in Kansas City.
Christian Pulisic of the USA warms up for the Copa America Centenario Group A match against Columbia at Levi's Stadium on June 3, 2016 in Santa Clara, Calif.
Christian Pulisic of the USA reaches for the ball against Gabriel Mercado of Argentina during the Copa America Centenario semifinal match on June 21, 2016 in Houston.
Christian Pulisic of the USA eyes the ball during the Copa America Centenario third place game against Colombia at the University of Phoenix Stadium on June 25, 2016 in Glendale, Ariz.
Patrick McNair of Manchester United in action with Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund during the pre-season friendly match at Shanghai Stadium on July 22, 2016 in Shanghai, China.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund celebrates after scoring the goal to the 1:1 during the International Champions Cup China match against Manchester City during Borussia Dortmund's Summer Asia Tour on July 28, 2016 in Shenzhen, China.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund during a training session on the training ground of Bad Ragaz during Borussia Dortmund's summer training camp on Aug. 7, 2016 in Bad Ragaz, Switzerland.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund gets challenged by Guilherme of Legia Warszawa during the UEFA Champions League: First Qualifying Round 1st Leg match at Wojska Polskiego Stadium on Sept. 14, 2016 in Warsaw, Poland.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund scores during the Bundesliga match against SV Darmstadt 98 at Signal Iduna Park on Sept. 17, 2016 in Dortmund, Germany.
Teammates of Borussia Dortmund celebrate the 3:0 goal of Christian Pulisic during the Bundesliga match against SV Darmstadt 98 at Signal Iduna Park on Sept. 17, 2016 in Dortmund, Germany.
Christian Pulisic blows by Joevin Jones in the USA's 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Trinidad and Tobago on Sept. 6, 2016, in which he assisted on a goal scored by Jozy Altidore.
Christian Pulisic chips the goalkeeper in scoring a massive goal for Dortmund in its triumph over Benfica in the 2016-17 Champions League round of 16.
Hearing Dempsey and Pulisic talk about connecting with each other was revealing too. When you write about players, you can’t help but jot “the 34-year-old Dempsey” and “the 18-year-old Pulisic.” But the fact is these guys aren’t thinking about ages when they’re on the field together. They’re just two inventive players finding a connection.
“Man, he’s a great player,” Dempsey said of Pulisic after the game. “He can beat people one-on-one on the dribble and creates mismatches because of that. Someone else has to try to push to him, and if you’re able to make good runs he’ll find you. It’s great to have players like that who can win that 1-v-1 battle and kind of break teams open.”
Pulisic was just as effusive about Dempsey.
“Clint’s an easy guy to play with,” Pulisic said. “He’s strong, he’s technical, he makes good runs and he always gives good support. That’s exactly what you need from a forward, and he’s clinical.”
It’s impossible to know how many times Pulisic and Dempsey will get to play with each other on the national team. For a guy who said he thought his career might have been over recently, Dempsey was talking on Friday night about hoping to play in another World Cup and hoping to get the chance to score three more goals and set a new all-time U.S. record (he trails Landon Donovan's mark of 57 by two after Friday's trio).
At the rate he’s going, Pulisic will be wearing the U.S. No. 10 jersey for a very long time. But instead of wondering how many times we’ll get to see Pulisic and Dempsey play together, perhaps the best thing to do is savor it while we can and look forward to more opportunities to witness something special, something that, like Friday’s performance, won’t leave our memory banks anytime soon.
Maybe the next one will come against Panama on Tuesday.