Because I can’t stop thinking about it.
I can’t stop thinking about Christian Pulisic’s first touch on the opening U.S. goal against Panama. It was an audacious touch, a side-footed flick into a few yards of evaporating space that didn’t actually exist on the field but existed only in a brief and beautiful synapse in Pulisic’s brain. It was reckless. It was fast. It was born from a hunger for power and pace and a consuming need to score, and it showed why he is the greatest American to ever play the game.
But it was also a touch that shouldn’t have happened. The 7th minute play started from a long Tim Howard goal kick that Bobby Wood flicked onto Jozy Altidore. Altidore received the ball with his back to goal, drawing the attention of three Panamanian defenders to him.
Pulisic, sensing the hesitation and collapsing defense, darted into the space off Altidore’s left shoulder. If you watch centerback Román Torres, you see him frozen, unsure if he should commit to Altidore or track Pulisic’s run.
A perfectly weighted pass would have come across Pulisic’s body, and he could then have taken a first touch forward in stride with his stronger right foot and — with a burst of pace — have been 1v1 on goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
But Altidore’s pass was behind Pulisic by a foot or two and was high, miniscule margins but ones that separate the good from the great. That pass should have stopped the U.S. counterattack. Any sane American player would have slowed his run and settled the ball, giving Torres and the rest of Panama’s defense the second it needed to reform their defensive line.
That is not what happened. In stride, Pulisic opened his body, lifted his left leg to a right angle and managed to side foot the ball forward with enough floating pace to land beyond a sliding Torres and with enough softness to allow Pulisic to take his second touch straight into the 18 yard-box. It would have been impressive if he had been standing still, but Pulisic did it all without stopping his run.
The rest of the play was obviously impressive (The outside-of-the-boot touch around a diving Penedo. The tight angled finish that sent Pulisic into a tumbling sideways somersault. The defiant scream and slide into the corner flag that looked more like a declaration of war than a celebration.), but it’s that first touch that I keep coming back to. With it, he turned an almost broken play into a goal. There are plenty of players with the ability to do it, but few who would have had the brash creativity to attempt it.
This is why Pulisic is so special. The 19-year-old also possesses incredible technical skill and speed, but it’s his brain that sets him apart. It allows him to see opportunities on the field that no one else does and then leverage his skill and pace to capitalize on them. It’s why he will be such an asset to the U.S. team at the World Cup in Russia and for the next decade.
But until his next mind-bending first touch, I’ll still be thinking about this one.