At first, there were nerves. Then shock. Pretty soon, there was fury. And then waves of emotion that the English language doesn’t quite contain words to describe. There was fear – of many things, including the unknown. Limbs trembled. Bodies shook. Minds swirled. For many, sleep was an afterthought.
Parts of the emotional spectrum, and perhaps later the insomnia, were projected onto that rutty field in Couva, the backdrop for a debacle of epic proportions. Out on the pitch, and surely deep into the Trinidadian night, there was disbelief and dismay and despair. There was laudable professionalism. But there were tears. Wet, guilty, painful tears.
There was also one inescapable image. One image, and one kid’s emotion. Christian Pulisic. Anguish. His, and by extension ours.
A nation aches, mostly out of anger. Out of an unfettered rage and unconscionable disappointment boiled into a stew of criticism, inquests and dejection. It is impossible to not talk about what went wrong, and what needs to change.
It is likewise impossible to mentally erase that image of the kid whom it went wrong in spite of. And it is impossible to not feel for him.
It is impossible to escape from the reality that a group of veterans who have themselves been touched by the glory of World Cups denied Pulisic one of four or five opportunities he’ll have to feel it. It’s not fair. It’s sad.
And it is difficult to shun the thought that they – not anybody in particular, just the rest, the non-superstars – have dragged and will drag him down – “him” being the greatest American soccer player ever, with treasure chests full of improvement still lying in wait. He, at 18 and 19, was responsible for more than half of the U.S.’s goals during the final round of World Cup qualifying. He, the skinny kid from Hershey, Pa., tried to pull them out of their qualifying grave. And it is not that he didn’t have the might; it was that they were too heavy.
There is still something so innocent about him. Something so refreshing; so joyous. Something that separates him from the rest. Frustration seeped into every action Tuesday night. But others’ frustration became exasperation. Pulisic’s was fuel. It became energy. Passion. Verve. A goal out of nothing.
It is not that the others lacked effort. It’s that Pulisic had something they didn’t. Talent, yes, of course. But also an insatiable hunger that others intermittently display, but that he consistently does. He flung himself about 10 North and Central American soccer fields over the past 11 month, dazzling with skill and wowing with grit, his shins battered, ankles raked by cleats, entire body likely aching the day following beating after beating.
And to think it was all for nothing.
There have been several examples over the years in international soccer of mediocrity extinguishing a single shining light. Gareth Bale, for example, has never played at a World Cup. Neither has Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, nor Robert Lewandowski (until next summer). Neither did Ryan Giggs, nor George Weah. On a more successful scale, Lionel Messi’s brilliance has often been blunted by Argentina’s inadequacy.
Pulisic will not join that club. At the very least, it’s preposterous to suggest that right now. The point, though, is that his World Cup dreams, like those of legends who never appeared on the grand stage, were and are at the mercy of his countrymen. He is now 0-for-1, but not due to any of his own shortcomings.
He is special, an absolute joy to watch, even in defeat. Even when his mazy runs don’t quite come off. Even when his frustration and passion get the better of him.
Whether he knows that he shouldn’t have to live with the humiliation of Tuesday night is not relevant. That he does have to live with it is. That he crouched pitchside and pulled his jersey up over his face to conceal it from an unjust world is one of the greatest crimes of the night. And they – everybody who could have done more, whoever they are – are the culprits.
They denied him a shot at bonafide American celebrity. At a summer straight out of his wildest dreams. At the type of exposure that turns stars into megastars, that turns Borussia Dortmund players into Barcelona ones, that turns soccer phenoms into nationwide idols.
There are others who might suffer more; who will rue this missed opportunity more; who, unlike Pulisic, will never savor the World Cup experience again. Some who might never pull the national team jersey on again.
But there is nobody more undeserving of this embarrassment than Pulisic. And that’s why there was nobody more inconsolable in Couva. His pain was felt by all. It will double as shame for those responsible for it.
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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.