NASHVILLE — Christian Pulisic and Weston McKennie are offering hope for the future of U.S. men’s soccer while contributing plenty to its present.
After combining on the lone goal in a 1-0 CONCACAF Gold Cup quarterfinal victory over Curacao, the two 20-year-old midfielders will try to help the defending champion United States beat Jamaica in a Wednesday night semifinal. The winner plays for the title Sunday in Chicago against Mexico, which defeated Haiti 1-0 on a penalty kick in the 93rd minute in a Tuesday semifinal.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter describes Pulisic and McKennie as "two completely different players" whose distinct strengths enable them to complement each other.
"When you look at Christian, he’s a guy that can change a game with his skill, with his ability to find players, his ability to take players on and beat them one [on] one and deliver a final pass," Berhalter said.
"When you look at Weston, he’s a very physically dynamic player. When you talk about being able to break a man-oriented defence, he can do it singlehandedly. When he gets the ball and starts running, players just can’t catch him."
Pulisic and McKennie are playing integral roles in helping U.S. soccer turn the page after failing to reach the World Cup last year. They’re vital parts of the U.S. team’s long-term outlook along with Tyler Adams, another 20-year-old midfielder who is missing the Gold Cup because of a groin injury.
McKennie says he isn’t surprised that he and Pulisic have worked well together. He notes that they’ve played with each other and against each other often enough over the years that they’ve been able to establish a rhythm.
"It’s turned out the way I expected it to be," McKennie said. "We’re pretty comfortable with each other. We know [our] movements. The chemistry is there between us."
Pulisic is the youngest U.S. player to appear in a World Cup qualifier, score an international goal or score in a World Cup qualifier — feats he accomplished before his 18th birthday. He served as the U.S. team’s captain for its victory over Curacao on Sunday.
His third assist of this Gold Cup came Sunday when he passed to McKennie, who headed the ball in from 4 yards in the 25th minute. That was the second career international goal for McKennie, who was born in America but gained his soccer skills while growing up on a military base in Germany.
"He’s a really big dominant presence," Pulisic said. "He’s really good at winning balls. He wins everything. He’s also good with the ball, whereas I’m not as much of a ball winner but more of a creator and dribbler. I think (we’ve) worked really well together."
Now the duo will help the U.S. face Jamaica as both teams attempt to improve upon underwhelming quarterfinal performances.
The U.S. advanced Sunday despite getting outshot as Curacao controlled the second half. Jamaica edged Panama 1-0 in its quarterfinal on Darren Mattocks’ penalty kick in the 75th minute.
These two teams know each other well.
Jamaica beat the U.S. 2-1 in a 2015 semifinal. The U.S. bounced back two years later by beating Jamaica 2-1 in the Gold Cup championship game.
The two teams met again less than a month ago, with Jamaica winning 1-0 in a June 5 exhibition at Washington, D.C.
Jamaica coach Theodore Whitmore said that friendly wouldn’t have any bearing on Wednesday’s game. The U.S. played that June 5 game without many of its key Gold Cup performers — including Pulisic and McKennie.
"It’s too different," Whitmore said. "We can’t use the friendly against the U.S. to judge."