Imagine a teenage Kobe Bryant, only without Shaquille O’Neal playing center for the Lakers. Or Julio Urias, with no Clayton Kershaw at the front of the Dodgers rotation.
And, oh, by the way, it’s up to them to get their teams back into postseason series in which they trail by a couple of games.
That’s essentially the position in which Christian Pulisic finds himself heading into the United States men’s national soccer team’s must-win World Cup qualifying match Friday against Honduras.
For the better or worse, the 18-year-old Pulisic is the best player on the U.S. roster. A prominent figure in the European power Borussia Dortmund’s attack and widely regarded as one of the top young talents in the Germany’s first division, he might already be the best player this country has ever produced.
Pulisic’s rapid ascent isn’t entirely unusual in global soccer. Many of the greats were considered world-class players when they were still teenagers. What’s different here is the extraordinarily heavy burden being placed on the shoulders of the 140-pound Pulisic.
By losing to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two games in the final stage of the qualification process, the Americans have positioned themselves where anything less than a victory Friday would be a disaster. To win, they will have to score against a defensively inclined Honduran team, which will almost certainly require some magic from the feet of Pulisic.
The U.S.’s top striker, Bobby Wood, is sidelined with a back injury he sustained playing for his club team in Germany. The team’s top attacker for the last decade, Clint Dempsey, only recently returned to the field after an extended break because of an irregular heartbeat. Another attacker, promising 22-year-old Jordan Morris, was described by Coach Bruce Arena as “day-to-day” because of an ankle problem.
“I’m not going to put pressure on myself like that,” Pulisic said. “I’m just going to go out like any other game and be confident, play like I play, and we’ll see where it goes.”
The list of unavailable players, which also includes midfielder Fabian Johnson, could force the U.S. into a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Jozy Altidore as a lone striker and Pulisic behind him in the No. 10 position. Pulisic generally plays on the right wing for Dortmund, but has also been positioned more centrally at times.
“I just like to be on the field, really, anywhere on the field,” Pulisic said. “But I’m very comfortable in that position. I’ve played there a lot.”
But the U.S. has rarely played well with a single striker, which points to the Americans lining up in a more customary 4-4-2, with Pulisic on the right.
Arena has a history of seemlessly integrating young players into his teams, including the player of whom he said Pulisic reminds him: Landon Donovan, the U.S.’s all-time leading scorer. But whereas Donovan never established himself in Germany — he had two failed stints with Bayer Leverkusen — Pulisic broke into Dortmund’s first team last year as a 17-year-old and has earned playing time in the European Champions League. Earlier this month, he scored and assisted in Dortmund’s victory over Benfica of Portugal.
Pulisic played for the U.S. in the losses to Mexico and Costa Rica in November. But, he said, “In four months’ time, or however long it’s been, being with Dortmund, playing in more big games, it’s just gaining experience.”
At the same time, he said of the upcoming game, “It’s definitely not the same. It’s a different situation.”
What’s also not the same is the quality of players around him. Ousamane Dembele plays on the opposite flank as him at Dortmund. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is in front. Altidore, in the most charitable of terms, is no Aubameyang.
In soccer, this matters, perhaps more so than in other sports. Even Lionel Messi isn’t the same player on Argentina’s national team as he is on Barcelona. And Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t score as much for Portugal’s national team as he does for Real Madrid.
“I think that his last couple of months with his club team in Germany have been great,” Arena said. “He has very little experience at the international level. He’s going to need to get a taste of it to continue to grow as a player. He has all the tools to become a very good player.”
Except the U.S. can’t wait. Pulisic will have to be that player Friday night.
Follow Dylan Hernandez on Twitter @dylanohernandez