There’s something to be said for just pummeling the teams you should pummel—for having the discipline to avoid deviation or distraction. It takes some measure of maturity to be relentless, ruthless and professional, even if the opponent and occasion don’t demand it.
By the fourth minute of Friday night’s 7-1 rout of Grenada, it was clear that the U.S. men's national team had carried those qualities onto the flight to this tiny Caribbean nation of around 125,000 people. Christian Pulisic immediately seized control on the left, whipped in a perfect cross for Ricardo Pepi, and the tone had been set. The Americans were ahead by three after only 32 minutes. Even when Grenada scored shortly thereafter, the U.S. answered within seconds.
The setting for this Concacaf Nations League group stage game seemed almost too relaxing. The 8,000-seat Kirani James Stadium is nestled along the water on the southwest coast of the country and encircled by lush hills. This was far from Concacaf at its most intimidating. Grenada’s Spice Boys are ranked 173rd in the world (the U.S. is 13th). Their squad features players from the domestic semi-pro league, as well as imports from the lower reaches in England (one starter, Kayden Harrack, is a 19-year-old academy player at Queens Park Rangers) and a couple from the USL Championship’s Charleston Battery.
Meanwhile, seven of the American starters were at the World Cup just four months ago. Kirani James is a long, long way from Qatar. And so that was Friday’s test—could the U.S. avoid the bends caused by the sudden decrease in pressure and summon the focus to dismiss Grenada quickly?
“When you go to some of these places, and the conditions are the way they are and you're the superior team, sometimes these things become like an equalizer in terms of the team you're playing against,” interim coach Anthony Hudson said after the win.
“I think the big thing going into this game was about mentality,” he continued. “With the utmost respect to our opposition, we just felt that the defining factor was going to be focus and mentality, and I think that part of it we were pleased with.”
The victory secured qualification for this summer’s regional championship, the Gold Cup (that was never in doubt), and set Hudson’s team up nicely to book passage to June’s Nations League final four. The seven goals were the most ever scored by the U.S. away from home. Pepi, a surprise exclusion from the World Cup roster, tallied two. Midfielder Weston McKennie also had two, including an alert, athletic volley in the 31st minute that was the highlight of the night. Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson and Alex Zendejas also scored, the latter in a reserve role after committing his international future to the U.S. last week.
Results like Fridays are part of why the Nations League, a redundant competition with minimal prestige, is evolving with its third edition this fall. Concacaf’s top four-ranked teams will get to skip the group stage and head straight to a home-and-away quarterfinal, thus halving their initial workload. The Nations League was designed to give the Grenadas of the region more competitive opportunities. It doesn’t do much for the heavyweights. So the Americans took from the game what they could: some confidence in their ability to play to their potential and memories of a fun evening scoring a ton in the tropics.
“Definitely a good time. Obviously we love scoring goals, and that's what we do. So, obviously a good score line [and a] positive result for the team. So we definitely enjoyed ourselves out there,” Pulisic said.
“It gives us a lot of confidence. We knew that they weren't just going to lay down and let us beat them, and that's why the early goal was important,” the Chelsea winger added. “We came out really strong, with a lot of energy and just kind of put it to them right away,”
The Americans will face El Salvador at Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium on Monday evening in the group stage finale. A draw will be enough to send the U.S. (2-0-1) through to the Nations League semis and final/third-place game on June 15-18 in Las Vegas. El Salvador (1-0-2) hasn’t beaten the Americans in over 30 years and is winless against them on U.S. soil in 18 all-time attempts. At stake for the U.S. is scheduling certainty and, perhaps, a game against rival Mexico with a trophy up for grabs before a sold-out Allegiant Stadium.
Exploria has been good to the U.S. (5-0-0), and its last visit—exactly a year ago Monday—was a memorable one. Needing a win to all but confirm World Cup qualification, the Americans thumped Panama, 5-1, behind a Pulisic hat trick. When healthy, confident and in form, Pulisic can unlock an opponent like no other U.S. player. That health and form has been elusive at times, however, and he arrived at this month’s national team camp recently recovered from a knee injury and having played just 86 competitive minutes since early January.
Yet he was brilliant in Grenada, constantly finding open space on the left, taking on defenders with speed and precision and delivering precise passes and set pieces. Some of that was a function of the disparity in collective talent. The U.S., which played with a tweaked three-man midfield that featured Gio Reyna as a playmaker, was under almost no pressure and had little trouble finding Pulisic or bringing players into the attack. But Pulisic’s vigor off the ball and quality on it was what really set the game alight. He was credited with a goal and two assists but was involved in creating two additional goals during his 64 minutes of action.
Hudson was so impressed that he delivered a moving monologue on the U.S. captain on a call with media back at the team hotel.
“If I'm honest, I'm amazed by Christian,” Hudson began. “When a cycle is over, and you have the start of a new cycle, especially the one we've just had, where you have the high of a World Cup, and then you have games like these at a time of the season where players are fighting for relegation, Champions League—real tense times in their clubs—it’s very, very easy to turn around and look at the schedule, and say, ‘Look, with all due respect, I think the team can get away without me and win these games.’ This happens all around the world with all sorts of international teams.
“I just can't speak highly enough of the character of this person who, not only is he a talented player, but is someone that I can assure you, he just absolutely loves playing for his country,” the coach continued. “He’s a great character, loves playing for his country and is inspiring to the rest of the group. And I think you saw that in his performance tonight. I can't remember the amount of times he put his body on the line. For such a big player, playing at a big club with a huge value on him, and we go to places like this and he has no problem just giving absolutely everything he has. So he's an inspiration for the rest of the group for sure.”
That is another satisfying takeaway from a game that didn’t offer much on paper. Pulisic has looked much more comfortable in his own skin in recent months, at least publicly. He was engaging and insightful at the World Cup and has been more outspoken since, all while navigating the upheaval at Chelsea sparked by manager Graham Potter’s appointment and the stunning rash of signings. He’s been buoyant rather than beleaguered, which is a good sign for a player who’s now a veteran leader on a team that’ll be hosting the World Cup in three-plus years. In the short term, he’s heading into the El Salvador game and then back to London in good form and spirit.
“Just to see him having fun and just playing his game with the confidence that he has, it’s amazing. So hopefully we can look forward to many more like that,” McKennie said.
“These games are always challenging,” Pulisic said. “It was a really nice scene though, tonight in Grenada, for sure. Field not bad, the stadium was beautiful. Nice, cool little atmosphere. So I think we definitely enjoyed ourselves here.”