While Christian Pulisic stars, veterans still making USMNT tick

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Clint Dempsey, Alejandro Bedoya, Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore
Don’t forget about the USMNT’s thirtysomething vets. (Getty Images)

“Christian Pulisic, Christian Pulisic, Christian Pulisic.”

That more or less summarizes the coverage and narrative of the United States men’s national team of late. And quite justifiably so, as the 18-year-old prodigy is surely already the best player on the national team. To deny this is to be obstinate, overly traditionalist or incapable of grasping new realities. In a year and a few months on Borussia Dortmund’s first team, Pulisic has arguably achieved more at the highest level of club soccer than any American field player before him.

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Sure, others have scored more goals, by virtue of having been around longer, and won promotion or made deep runs in cup competitions – John Harkes’ Sheffield Wednesday reached the Premier League and lifted the League Cup in 1991; Jay DeMerit and Watford were promoted there in 2006; Clint Dempsey’s Fulham reached the Europa League final in 2010. But nobody else has been a regular for a team as good as Dortmund.

Even if his team was never quite in the Bundesliga title race this year, Pulisic has a respectable five goals and has more than held his own in the Champions League, appearing in all eight of Dortmund’s games in Europe this season and starting six times. On Friday, in the USA’s healing 6-0 battering of Honduras in World Cup qualifying, the hype was substantiated anew when Pulisic got a goal, two assists and enabled a fourth goal with a shot that was saved but then hit in by Sebastian Lletget.

Yet the other player to draw headlines from that victory, which began to set the beleaguered American campaign to reach Russia 2018 right, was Clint Dempsey. And he and his performance were perhaps much more representative of where this team really stands. Dempsey, it probably won’t have escaped you, scored a hat trick in his first USA game in nine months – less a day – after coming back from the irregular heartbeat that kept him out of action for half a year.

The reason Dempsey was in the lineup at all, head coach Bruce Arena conceded in his deadpan, sarcasm-tinged bluntness, was because “we didn’t have anyone else.”

That is to say, striker Bobby Wood was one of a slew of national teamers injured on the eve of the game and his closest approximation, the speedy Jordan Morris, was hurt as well. Fellow veteran Chris Wondolowski was also on the roster but much closer in style and skill set to Jozy Altidore than Dempsey. Which is to say, that fielding Wondo would have meant a striker pairing of two players who were very alike, making it hard for them to play off each other and easy for the defense to mark them.

At any rate, Dempsey started. Just months after Arena said publicly that he thought the 34-year-old wouldn’t even be fit enough to merit a call-up for this camp after sitting out from August until March.

But Dempsey was not the only program stalwart to drive on the American win. If Pulisic dazzled out on the right flank, the team’s veterans formed the foundation of a profoundly satisfying night following two and a half years of post-World Cup dithering.

Tim Howard, who just turned 38, reclaimed his spot in goal, making a few saves while deftly commanding a makeshift defense. Geoff Cameron, 31, filled in at right back with the first three or four options in that spot unavailable and gave a credible performance. Jorge Villafana played only his third national team game and the first in a competitive game at left back.

Tim Howard
Howard celebrates the big win over Honduras. (Getty Images)

Michael Bradley, who will, unimaginably, turn 30 this summer and who should claim his 130th cap against Panama on Tuesday, gave an imperious performance as the holding midfielder, distributing from deep as he did in his very best days with AS Roma.

Alejandro Bedoya, who will hit the big three-oh himself in a month, filled in capably for the quickly injured Lletget, helping to keep Honduras pinned back by pressing high in midfield. And Dempsey, as stated, defied his age.

Striker Jozy Altidore, meanwhile, is still only 27 years old but also a decade and 101 games into his national team career. His passing up top against Honduras enabled two goals, while his reliable labor kept the defense occupied for others to capitalize on.

There is an altogether different discussion to be had about whether the USA being so veteran-reliant is a good thing or a bad one. Recently-fired head coach Jurgen Klinsmann argued that it was up to the young players to push the old ones out, and, to a certain extent, this argument had merit. Yet you can’t help but note how many promising, young almost-national teamers never really panned out. Whether the opportunity or the performance should come first is something of a chicken-and-egg equation.

Yet the unassailable truth is this: A year and a few months out from the next World Cup, Pulisic is ascendant and becoming the face of the U.S. national team. But it’s the 30-somethings – or soon-to-bes – around him that allow him to thrive.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.