Big players step up when needed most. When the lights are the brightest, and the stakes are higher than ever, those are the moments when your stars are needed to shine. In the United States 3-2 victory over Mexico in the Nations League Final, the U.S. saw two star making performances from two very different sources.
Christian Pulisic had been long pegged as the future face of United States Men’s Soccer. As the old generation of stars headed by Clint Dempsey started to wane, a young forward from Hershey made early waves in Europe. He was identified as a future leader of the United States National Team early on, making his senior team debut in March 2016 at the age of 17.
The talent has been there for Christian Pulisic, and fans just waited for a key star-making performance from their highest touted prospect. The stage was set for Pulisic to do just that in the 114th minute. After VAR confirmed a penalty had been committed on Pulisic in the box late into extra time, the Chelsea forward held onto the ball, it was his shot to make. The game was deadlocked at 2, the U.S. looking for their first trophy since 2017. With the eyes of a nation centered on the spot, Christian Pulisic rifled a shot into the right corner. The U.S. now led rival Mexico 3-2 with the finish in sight. Pulisic finally had his first signature moment for the U.S. National Team.
From the golden boy of the new generation of American football to a player no one expected to take the field, Americans love an underdog story. The scrappy underdog who defies the odds and pulls out the victory despite all adversity is ingrained in the fabric of American culture. In the 67th minute the nightmare for any football fan happened, the goalie went down and had to be replaced. A knee injury forced starting keeper Zack Steffen to come off the pitch, in his stead entered Club Brugge goaltender Ethan Horvath. Those feelings of dread and fear would set the stage for one of the greatest underdog stories in U.S. Men’s Soccer history.
The feelings of elation resulting from Christian Pulisic’s score quickly turned to panic when a handball led to a Mexican penalty kick in the 123rd minute. Fans thought that the U.S. had finally defeated their rivals Mexico, and it felt like a sick joke being played on American fans. An hour and a half ago Horvath was watching from the bench, now preserving the United State’s lead, and possibly the Nations League victory itself was all on the line. Horvath dove right, saving Guardado’s penalty. Horvath had quite literally saved the day.
What a difference a few years makes. In 2017, the U.S. were at their lowest point in team history. Considered too big to fail, the Americans failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. The stigma of embarrassment followed the team after, and it’s one the team has struggled to shed to date. A new era is dawning though. Despite going down twice against a rival that has historically dominated them, the U.S. fought back. Their stars stepped up. For the first time in years, the United States weren’t just a team that’s “going to do something in the future.”
On a long night in Denver, the United States finally stood as winners.