ORLANDO – Four years ago, when the last World Cup concluded, America’s newest soccer home was a mostly vacant plot of land with an old church.
Four years ago, when the last World Cup concluded, America’s newest soccer mecca didn’t even have an MLS team.
Four years ago, when the last World Cup concluded, America’s newest soccer superstar had just turned 15 years old.
For so many years, there’s been a longing for “grassroots” growth of soccer in the United States. When would new markets emerge? When would a prodigy captivate casual fans? Here on Friday, in a state where soccer has often failed to catch on, the grass roots were in full bloom.
“From the second we walked in,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, “people were in their seats. So we knew it would be a good day.”
The U.S. men’s national team arrived in Orlando in need of a spark, stung by two home losses in World Cup qualifying and fending off the creeping worry that the grandest tournament would go on without them next year. Within eight minutes, the spark arrived in the form of Christian Pulisic in the open field, dancing to his right and tucking a gorgeous goal into the Panama net. Then in the 19th minute, Pulisic delivered a perfect cross to Jozy Altidore, who touched it home and made it 2-0.
The Panamanians had only allowed five goals in eight Hexagonal matches, and yet here were Pulisic and pals steamrolling a team that came in ahead of them in the standings. It was so lopsided that Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez would later huff that the U.S. could have scored 10 goals if they really wanted to. The Americans ended up with four, and a clean sheet, and a very good chance to clinch a World Cup bid on Tuesday.
“I thought we were never really troubled,” said midfielder Dax McCarty, “from the opening whistle to the last one.”
These weren’t set pieces triggering the U.S. romp; these were run-of-play firecrackers created by first touches built for YouTube. By the end of the first half, after another goal by Altidore, the crowd was so ginned up that it began to roar when Pulisic brought up the ball one-on-four. Early in the second half, the fans began chanting “We Want Dempsey!” and as if by remote control, the longtime leader was up off the bench and on his way into the game. “I was going to come in after 60 minutes,” coach Bruce Arena later quipped, “and let the fans [decide the subs].”
This wasn’t Columbus or Portland or San Jose. This was Central Florida.
“Never in a million years did I envision this,” said McCarty, who grew up here. “To see so many people’s dreams in Orlando come to fruition and to see soccer be as big as it is here. My hope is this can start to be like Columbus and we will come here every round of World Cup Qualifying, because it’s gonna become a fortress for us.”
It’s not like soccer in America has reinvented itself in the last four years. Howard is still the iconic goaltender; Michael Bradley is still the stoic leader; Altidore is still by turns magnificent and maddening. But Friday night showed how much can change in this country in a short time. Pulisic is now the engine, even at 19. Asked what has made the biggest difference from last year’s slow start, Altidore simply said, “Christian.”
Late last year, then-coach Jurgen Klinsmann built a formation to set Pulisic free in the team’s opening match in Columbus, and it was an early sign – even in a loss to Mexico – that a new era was here. Now it seems the 19-year-old has found a home in the middle of the pitch, and that’s where he’s likely to stay for a long, long time.
“You can’t help but see the improvement when he’s on the field,” Altidore said, “especially when he’s in the middle of everything.”
The rest of the sport knows it too. Pulisic was targeted by cheap shots all night. Very few players in the world get that kind of attention. And you can see the protectiveness among Pulisic’s teammates.
“He’s been a little frustrated lately,” McCarty said. “In qualifying, teams have been playing him really physical. It was ridiculous tonight how much he was kicked and fouled and not protected by the referees.”
And yet he was still “unstoppable,” to use McCarty’s word. “When he plays like that, when he’s in that kind of mode, we’re a really dangerous team.”
Dangerous? The U.S.? Well, assuming the Americans do qualify for Russia on Tuesday in Trinidad, their opponents next year will have to deal with Pulisic. It won’t be about parking the bus and hoping for one of the forwards to have a blessed night. The Americans will expect Pulisic to do something special. He is threatening to be a LeBron James or a Sidney Crosby in cleats: the Next One who owns the responsibility and the moment even from a young age. The Pulisic jerseys are already dotting the grandstands and the banners: 10, 10, 10.
But before looking too far ahead, let’s look at what’s already done. Friday was billed as one of the biggest matches in U.S. men’s soccer history, and the “wonder boy” (to quote Howard) and the home crowd rose to the occasion.
“We should have a very strong supporting crowd,” said Arena. “Once in a while we don’t have that.” This wasn’t like the milquetoast performance in front of an uninspired gallery in New Jersey. This was energy and motion. And so much of it is so new.
“I’m a little surprised but not surprised,” McCarty said of his hometown supporters. “The fans were craving something else.”
The vacant lot is now a destination. The 15-year-old is now a star. Welcome to something else.
Eric Adelson wrote for ESPN The Magazine and contributed to “Outside The Lines” before joining Yahoo Sports in 2010. He won first place in the Associated Press Sports Editors 2013 contest in feature writing. He is the author of “The Sure Thing,” about the early career of golfer Michelle Wie. Follow him on Twitter @eric_adelson.