Pulisic, United States pummel Trinidad as Gold Cup provides platform for recovery

CLEVELAND -- Christian Pulisic couldn't stop smiling.

Given that the U.S. thrashed Trinidad and Tobago 6-0 in its second group-stage match at the Gold Cup, this wouldn't seem to be that unusual. But Pulisic's postgame demeanor usually shifts between stoic, if the team wins, and scowl, if the team loses.

This time, Pulisic was practically buoyant, happy to discuss all manner of topics, though the team's performance pleased him most of all.

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"We enjoyed every moment of it," he said. "Obviously the goals and everything flowed really nicely, so it looks good. We're going to have some bigger challenges ahead and we're more excited for those."

Pulisic even found time to expound on the energy levels of teammate and long-term friend, Weston McKennie.

"Besides at 8 in the morning, he has more energy than any guy I've ever met," Pulisic said of McKennie. "In the morning, don't talk to him. But after that, he's on 'go' all the time.

"A switch hits at 9:15 a.m. and he's ready. Then the whole day is just nonstop. I'm a morning person, so that time is good for me because Wes isn't always in my ear."

Pulisic also opened a bit of a window into what this game meant to him. All week, the U.S. team had insisted that revenge for the World Cup qualifying defeat to the Soca Warriors back in 2017, one that prevented them from reaching the 2018 World Cup, wasn't on its mind. The focus was on the task at hand. That went from players who played in the World Cup qualifier, like Paul Arriola, to those who didn't, like Wil Trapp.

Pulisic was different, even going so far as to say in one postgame interview that he had a chip on his shoulder regarding the match. His outlook hadn't changed by the time he made his way through the postmatch mixed zone.

"You guys know what happened against Trinidad," he said. "Obviously I wanted to win real bad today. That was it."

It showed. Pulisic and the rest of his teammates struggled to break T&T down in the first half, though that was due in part to the fact that the Soca Warriors were content to sit back, soak up pressure and try to hit the U.S. on the counter. That said, the U.S. also wasn't entirely sharp either.

But it was the Chelsea midfielder who helped break the ice with a bit of quality that came in the form of a perfectly weighted cross that Aaron Long headed home for the first of his two goals. Pulisic later set up Gyasi Zardes' second goal of the night, and was overall an attacking menace as the game opened up. After that tally, the rout was officially on, including a Pulisic goal set up by substitute Jordan Morris.

"They were very man-oriented and it was tough to break the lines, but we said you have to keep moving and finding the right spaces and we did a good job of that in the second half," he said. "Obviously when you do that the whole game and press them every time you lose the ball, it's tough for them.

"They got tired -- you could see it and we did that really well tonight."

Pulisic even drew praise from manager Gregg Berhalter for the work he put in defensively, and the midfielder could be seen sprinting back in the second half to help win the ball.

"It's not my biggest strength, but I think it's really important for me coming into this team, if we're going to play this pressing style, I'm going to try to help the team the best I can," Pulisic said. "If it means I have to work really hard, I'm going to understand how we're going to press and how we're going to do things. I worked hard tonight."

Everything about Pulisic, from his performance to his postgame mood, could be reflected in his U.S. teammates. The much-maligned Zardes scored twice and came within inches of getting a hat trick. McKennie thrived in a midfield role that saw him play a little deeper in support of Michael Bradley while also finding some of his trademark energy to get forward.

While the defense had a couple of scary moments in dealing with some T&T counterattacks -- including one in the 61st minute that ended with Levi Garcia missing the target -- it largely held up well.

Certainly there are better teams in this tournament than T&T, who finds itself eliminated after two games with a goal differential of minus-8. But prior to the tournament the Americans had difficulty looking good against just about everybody. It's worth noting that Pulisic didn't play in either of those matches, but now at least the U.S. looks like it's beginning to build some chemistry.

Arriola, scorer of the U.S. team's fifth goal, and Tyler Boyd are creating some havoc on the flanks. Bradley and McKennie looked to be in sync with their roles. The sight of Jozy Altidore making it onto the field for a 16-minute appearance was welcome.

While it no doubt helps when players around Pulisic are performing well, he remains the vital piece if the U.S. is going to actually win the tournament. For a player of Pulisic's talent, that isn't news. But there have been moments when Pulisic looked weighed down by the responsibility placed on him. The fact that the U.S. attacker is looking more comfortable in his national team skin bodes well.

"I think what we're doing is trying to put him in a position where he can [take a game over]," Berhalter said about Pulisic. "The structure around him accommodates him being flexible. He can go wide, he can come inside, he can create space for himself, we can use the striker to get him the ball bouncing it back to him. That's what we're trying to do, and the reason we're trying to do that is he has these game-changing abilities."

It is premature to say the U.S. men's national team has made a full recovery. Panama, its final group-stage opponent on Wednesday, has a habit of making life difficult for the U.S. at the Gold Cup. After all, the Canaleros are responsible for handing the U.S. its only group-stage defeat in the history of the tournament.

But with both the U.S. and Panama already through to the quarterfinals, it remains to be seen what level of intensity there will be in a game which has little riding on it.

"The first two games have been good, but it's just a start," Bradley added. "We understand that as the tournament goes on, games get harder, things get more competitive and the level from everybody has to go up."

True. But for the first time in what seems like ages, the possibility that a higher ceiling exists for this U.S. team feels more real. For a program that has been weighed down by a World Cup qualifying hangover, that is a welcome step forward.