From the moment Christian Pulisic’s name appeared on the lineup sheet Tuesday, a sleepy 2018 World Cup qualifier between the United States and Trinidad and Tobago in front of a small, end-of-summer assembly took on greater worth.
The visiting Soca Warriors had already secured passage to the final round this fall. Only a catastrophe, blending two results, would have prevented the Americans from doing the same.
The U.S. gang took care of business with a 4-0 victory that left it atop the four-team semifinal group and set up a final-stage opener against archrival Mexico on Nov. 11, probably in Columbus, Ohio.
Jozy Altidore scored twice, and Sacha Kljestan and Paul Arriola added one apiece before 19,410 at EverBank Field.
What stood out, though, was Jurgen Klinsmann’s decision to start Pulisic, 12 days short of his 18th birthday. He became the youngest U.S. player to start a qualifier in at least 30 years. (Officials are still trying to determine whether he is the youngest in program history.)
He also showed he belonged on the field.
“As we said over the last months, one step at a time, but the step was right today,” Klinsmann said. “The performance was wonderful to watch.”
Klinsmann paused, then, with a grin, said: “Don’t want to give him too many compliments — gotta keep him down on the ground.”
Pulisic was lively and confident, creating scoring opportunities, assisting on one goal and almost finishing a few other chances.
The Hershey, Pa., native picked up the sport from his parents, former George Mason University players. After shining in Borussia Dortmund’s academy, he joined the first team for the German Bundesliga titans last year.
“It’s always hard when you have young kids who are supremely talented because you don’t want to put the weight of the world on their shoulders,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, 37. “But he’s embraced it. He’s good.
“I don’t know what it’s like to have that much confidence at that age. It’s incredible. It reminds of the other guy who used to wear number 10.”
That would be Landon Donovan, the retired superstar who burst onto the international scene as a teenager.
In the buildup to the next set of qualifiers, speculation about the lineup will crackle. Pulisic will surely enter the discussion.
Before resuming the qualifying grind, the Americans will play friendlies against Cuba on Oct. 7 in Havana and New Zealand four days later in Washington.
Pulisic wasn’t the only new addition to the lineup Tuesday. Klinsmann made six changes from Friday’s 6-0 victory at St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Michael Bradley returned from suspension, Howard started and Omar Gonzalez and D.C. United’s Steve Birnbaum partnered in central defense. Sacha Kljestan, MLS’s assists leader, started a qualifier for the first time since 2013.
While Kljestan’s inclusion might’ve created a minor stir, Pulisic’s was hotly anticipated by U.S. supporters begging to see the teenager perform from the start of a significant game. His previous seven appearances came as a substitute.
Pulisic started on the left wing but was granted the freedom to cut inside and orchestrate.
Klinsmann “has been talking with me and he felt I was ready,” Pulisic said. “Of course, starting the game is different. You have to come out with a certain intensity about you to set the tone. I felt comfortable out there.”
He took his first crack at the target after eight minutes, forcing Marvin Phillip into a diving save.
In the 31st minute, after Altidore muscled into the box and crossed, Pulisic hit both posts on an angled bid from close range.
The Americans went ahead in the 44th minute. Kljestan and Fabian Johnson worked a combination. Johnson touched the ball to Pulisic for a cross poked away by Radanfah Abu Bakr. Khaleem Hyland butchered the clearance, knocking the ball to Kljestan for a 12-yard stab into the right corner.
Three goals followed in a 12-minute span of the second half. Johnson crossed to Altidore, who juked a defender and slotted a 15-yard shot. Three minutes later, in the 62nd, Pulisic and Kljestan worked a sharp combination. Pulisic’s low cross met Altidore at the back post for an easy finish.
In the 71st, Pulisic led a counterattack eventually capped by substitute Arriola, who converted the rebound of Pulisic’s saved shot.
“It took us a bit of time to really start to get a feel for the game,” Pulisic said, “but once we got it, we really gave it to them.”