Soccer  

I can handle Qatar World Cup pressure

AL-RAYYAN, Qatar — Christian Pulisic has said it is a “dream” to be at a World Cup — one that was cruelly delayed five years ago on a waterlogged field in Trinidad as the U.S. failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

The 2-1 loss to Trinidad & Tobago on the final day of qualifying cut deep for Pulisic, and the photo of him hunched down, his fingers dug into his eyes after the final whistle remains indelible. Now as the U.S. prepare for their opening game against Wales on Monday, Pulisic is ready to get started.

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“It’s unreal for me to be here at a World Cup,” he said following Wednesday’s training session. “Just the whole feeling to be with these guys to play on the biggest stage. You know, it’s been a dream of mine my whole life, so I’m just very excited to be here.”

Pulisic is no stranger to big moments. This is a man with a UEFA Champions League winner’s medal on his resume after all. But he also understands that the World Cup is something special, and the opportunity is there to make an indelible impression.

“I feel like I’ve played in some big games. I’ve accomplished a lot. I’ve done a lot of things,” Pulisic said. “But what I want to do with the World Cup is something on top of all of that. It’s something when I was a kid in Pennsylvania growing up, five to 10 years old, that’s all I thought about was the World Cup.”

With respect to the pressure to perform, Pulisic said he “didn’t see it as a burden at all.” But he’s also not entirely immune either, especially now that he’s about to play on one of the sport’s biggest stages.

“All those emotions and stuff that you’re not ready for, it always hits you. It hits you, and you feel it,” he said. “You feel the big moments coming every day. Laying in bed at night, when it gets a day closer, you feel it a little bit more, so that’s how it goes.”

He added: “I know I can overcome those feelings and bring out hopefully my best work out on the field. So that’s the goal.”

Pulisic’s play with Chelsea this season has been dissected from the moment the campaign began. Every time he was stuck on the Blues’ bench the anxiety within the U.S. fanbase rose. He even underwent a managerial change back in September, with Graham Potter replacing the fired Thomas Tuchel.

As a consequence, Pulisic has only one goal and one assist in 13 appearances, three of them starts. But he insists he’s feeling close to his best.

“I feel great right now,” he said. “My form is actually been really good in recent weeks I feel. So I’ve gotten some games in, [I’m] continuing to work there and improving myself there and honestly, I feel really strong and very good and prepared going into this.”

Pulisic also understands that the World Cup isn’t just an opportunity for him to show his best, but also change the perception of the U.S. team. The Americans have tended to do well in World Cups, reaching the knockout stages three out of the last four times they’ve qualified. Yet it’s perceived — with considerable justification — as still being below the top nations in the world.

When asked if there is something the world gets wrong in its view of the U.S. team, Pulisic said: “I don’t think it’s necessarily what they get wrong. I think we have to prove ourselves. We haven’t been maybe at the level of some of these world powerhouses in recent decades.

“We’ve had good teams with a lot of hearts and minds, but I think we can take it to that next step. With a successful World Cup, I think that can change a lot of things.”