Christian Pulisic talks to ESPN: U.S. Soccer, Berhalter/Reyna, World Cup, more

Christian Pulisic has his say on the controversy between former USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and the Reyna family. (1:41)

LONDON — Christian Pulisic is as committed and passionate about the U.S. men’s team immediately focusing on winning the 2026 World Cup, co-hosted by Mexico and Canada, as he was determined to drive the rebuild after Bruce Arena’s squad failed to qualify for Russia 2018.

It was a promise on which Pulisic delivered, too, playing a part in every goal the USMNT scored at Qatar 2022, including the 1-0 winner against Iran that sent Gregg Berhalter’s squad into the last 16. The 24-year-old Chelsea star was candid about his dismay at the treatment of his former national team coach — and the drama around his exit — and made clear his impatience at U.S. Soccer’s slow start to 2023 when it comes to who’s in charge, fearful of losing any momentum that this crew generated in Doha.

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In a wide-ranging interview with ESPN, Pulisic demonstrated his footballing and personal maturity, his desire to be an inspirational figure for his national team — with or without the captain’s armband — and describes in detail for the first time why, and how, Berhalter both shaped and impressed him. He describes that goal against Iran as the most joyful moment of his football life, strongly defends the “tell it as it is” Berhalter coaching techniques that seemed to upset the Reyna family and looks back, constructively, on the crucial moment against the Netherlands when, with the score at 0-0, he squandered his one-on-one chance that might have sent the USMNT to the quarterfinals.

Relaxed and free of his recent knee injury, with his club preparing for the Champions League quarterfinals and Pulisic personally keen to demonstrate his hunger for further international success, this is Pulisic at his punchiest — he’s determined to speak clearly on issues and promised that he’ll demonstrate leadership in both actions and words from now until the USMNT takes the field at the next World Cup.

Pulisic: Berhalter-Reyna drama was “childish”

(Editor’s Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)

Graham Hunter: The USMNT has no director of football and no permanent coach. The World Cup (that the U.S. is co-hosting) might seem a long way away, but we’ve barely blinked, and we’re already almost four months on from Qatar. Does U.S. Soccer have as much time as it thinks it does when it comes to consolidating and building on what you achieved in Qatar?

Pulisic: I’m not here to appoint the next manager. It’s not my job. Whoever it is, I’m gonna play and give 100 percent. But in my opinion, everything that happened with Gregg has been handled in an extremely childish manner. I think we all have seen what’s been going on. I think it’s childish. It’s [something you’d see in] youth soccer: people complaining about playing time. I don’t want to go too far into that, but I think Gregg has been extremely unfortunate to get into the position he is now.

Should we just wait and wait [for a new manager]? We’re not in a phase where we need a complete rebuild, like we were after not qualifying for the last World Cup four years ago. We don’t need a bunch of new guys coming in. We have a strong core: a lot of people have seen that. We need to carry on. That’s why it’s a tough one, because I think we want to continue as soon as we can and build from this World Cup, which brought a lot of positives.

The recent independent report released by U.S. Soccer on Monday seems to put Berhalter completely in the clear, and it appears he is still a candidate for his old job. If Gregg were to be put in charge again, immediately, would you feel content with that?

Yeah, no doubt, no doubt about it. I think the strides that we’ve taken in recent years with him in charge, have been evident. I think it’s quite clear.

Under Berhalter, the USMNT won two trophies: the CONCACAF Nations League and the CONCACAF Gold Cup. Describe him and what it’s like with him in charge.

Berhalter is someone who has grown on me a lot over the years. I’ve learned a lot from him and have grown so much as a player. It’s underappreciated what he’s done to create that environment which was so special within that team [in Qatar]. He’s helped a lot of players improve in a lot of ways.

He’s also very passionate about the sport. I think he’s done some incredible things in a short amount of time. There were moments when he benched me and I wanted to kill the guy — I hated him. I was so angry — but then the next game comes along, and then I find myself in a better place. He handled a lot of situations, and I have to give him a lot of credit. I think he created a team that was probably the best brotherhood, or unit, that I’ve been a part of.

Improving players and forging a unit is so much tougher as an international coach than at club level.

One hundred percent. That’s what makes these national team tournaments so special because everyone is in that same boat. At a club, you’re able to work on things daily, month after month and game after game all season long. When you come to the national team, it’s not so simple. He did a good job of showing the team and helping everyone understand “look, this is how we’re gonna play in a short period of time.”

Is it gonna be perfect? Of course not. No national team is. Argentina lost their first match [at the World Cup].

You know that tough moments are gonna come, and we had some of those. Of course we wanted to go further. I’m not here to say that we’re at all satisfied with where we got in the tournament. We passed a big milestone, we got out of the group stage, but we wanted to go all the way. There’s no doubt about it.

Go into detail about Berhalter’s man management, please.

The best example I could give you is my first camp with him. I’ll never forget this.

We played a game against Chile. I scored in the first half — a great goal. Then I picked up a little injury and went to the hospital to get a scan. I came back late at night, and he calls me down to his office and — this was after I had kind of a string of small injuries — he said “Look, maybe the reason is that you need to train harder. You need to train more like you play.”

This after I just scored a goal and I’m thinking “Who’s this guy to tell me this?”

That moment stuck with me for a long time. It changed the way I look at training, even today, and I want to train like I play. It wasn’t easy, and it took me a little while, but I said “let me take this onboard.”

The way he deals with players, you can tell he is passionate, and he cares about his players. He’s not going to tell you it’s easy or tell what you want to hear. He is going to tell you what he feels is going to improve you.

He tells his players hard truths and tells it straight, but it’s always for a specific reason and to improve them?

Yes, absolutely. You don’t always want to hear it. And as a player, you want to be right! You know [how it is] “Who are these guys to tell you, a professional player, how to handle yourself!!’

But I’ve always been with that mentality that I’m here to learn. That’s who I want to be, and it’s what takes the top players to the top.

Pulisic has trained under a handful of the world’s top coaches — Jurgen Klopp at Borussia Dortmund, Thomas Tuchel, Maurizio Sarri and Graham Potter at Chelsea, plus Jurgen Klinsmann with the USMNT — across his 265 club appearances. It’s a remarkable tally for a 24-year-old, and his analysis of Berhalter needs to be set against accumulated experience under those other high-achieving men.

Both Pulisic’s acceptance of Berhalter’s “tell it straight” tendencies and his appreciation of team-building success speak well of the man waiting in the wings to see whether he’ll get his job back. But so does the USMNT performance in Qatar.

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Hunter: Notwithstanding wanting to have gone further at the World Cup, you’re proud of what the U.S. team did in getting out of a tough group. When you went back to Chelsea, did your teammates say anything to you about your tournament?

Pulisic: I did get a lot of compliments, to be honest. They said “Wow, we had no idea!” I knew before the tournament that we had a strong enough team to compete with England. On the Chelsea team bus before the tournament, some of the English guys were saying “You know, it’ll be us going through and, and yeah, maybe you guys, maybe Wales,” and I said “All right, cool … let’s see how the game goes and let’s see how it plays out.”

But I was confident, and absolutely we had some compliments for how well we performed.

The hard truth is that things might have been different but for Andries Noppert’s third-minute save in the last-16 match when you were one-on-one with the Netherlands goalkeeper. I’ve heard you say that such things are “meant to be.” Can you explain?

I watch myself back and see what could I have done so that if I’m in a similar situation, the next time it comes I’m going to bury that chance. At the same time, there comes a point where if you just continue to look back on it in a negative way and can’t forget about it, then you’re never going to move on.

I’ve always been a strong believer that everything happens for a reason. I believe God has a plan. I believe that the defeat against the Netherlands made us a stronger team, made me a stronger player, and that it’s going to help us when we’re in the next big match or the next World Cup.

A sore experience, perhaps, but it’s arguable that fans, members of the public, the media — we don’t really appreciate the degree of mental toughness all of you need in order to deal with disappointment, setbacks and failure?

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Look at any of the all-time greats: they’ve all had major disappointments in their careers. It’s about how well you handle them and how much you can learn from those moments. If you just see them as defeats and can’t learn anything from them, then you’re not going to have that big turnaround.

The reason everyone is so happy for Lionel Messi [winning the World Cup] is because they’ve seen him at his lows when everyone says he’s never going to do it. The great ones are able to stay very balanced, be strong mentally and know that they’re going to overcome this.

Having worked at the World Cup in Qatar, I particularly enjoyed the goals, assists and Man of the Match performances you were part of because, four years ago after failing to qualify for the tournament in Russia, you made an impressive clarion call for improvement and advancement. And so many of the themes in that piece that you published back then subsequently came true in the qualification campaign for Qatar at the World Cup. That must have meant great joy for you?

One hundred percent. It was all about the team for me, always.

I’m so proud of what the team accomplished and the way that we came together, when performances beforehand didn’t lead anyone to believe we’d be able to show the beautiful football that we played in Qatar. There’s been no greater joy from a football perspective in my life than getting through that group stage, scoring that goal against Iran and celebrating with my teammates afterward.

Every kid dreams of playing at the World Cup. Growing up, I was watching World Cups with my family, down in my basement in my hometown, supporting the U.S. team with everything I had. And when they scored, I thought that was the most joy a person could feel! Then when you’re able to do it yourself, representing your country, under what I would say is immense pressure, and you get that feeling of finally delivering as a team, when a lot of people doubted you, that’s another reason that makes it so special.

I would’ve loved for this World Cup to have been even longer for us. We wanted to go all the way. But the few weeks that I was there are memories that I’ll have for the rest of my life. The environment that was created within our national team, the brotherhood, all the joking, teasing, but then, when it comes to training and playing in those games, the seriousness with which we take these games — there’s nothing like it.

You create a bond with your teammates you are going to have for the rest of your life. When you battle in moments that carry so much pressure, and you’ve done that together, you’ve gone through the tough times together and then you’ve had those incredible victories. When you feel like you’re on top of the world, you experience those things together and you create something special. That’s going to be there for the rest of our lives.

Hunter: What is your preferred position?

Pulisic: I think it’s a tough one for me. I think I’ve demonstrated qualities in a few different attacking positions; I feel like my best position on the field is something like being in behind a striker, potentially off of the left side, but having a bit of freedom to maneuver, understanding where I need to be to create and help my team score goals.

I definitely feel stronger when I can come in inside onto my right foot. And dribbling or running in behind is another strength of mine. So yeah: that area underneath the striker, potentially from the left side is my best position.

What have you learned from your injuries? There have been a few.

I think this [latest] injury has taught me a lot, and not just this one. I think some of my best moments have been just after coming back from a long-term injury and you know there will always be the people that say oh, he’s injured all the time. I think the last year or so I’ve been extremely healthy. I’ve been extremely available. And I haven’t just had these little injuries here and there where I’ve been out for a week, or this and that.

I’ve been unfortunate to have a couple of serious injuries and it’s unfortunately part of the sport, but I’m doing everything I can to avoid injury and be available as much as I can.

Christian Pulisic has high hopes for Chelsea in the Champions League, with Graham Potter’s side starting to click.

Almost everybody watching this has had a little struggle in their own life. So where you are finding reserves of confidence or reflection, or when you’re coping with the fact that there’s huge frustration… where has your mind been going? What have you been thinking about that has helped you through the process?

Yeah, I think you get a whole new appreciation for what you do when you’re sitting on the sideline and watching your teammates do it, especially in tough moments, which had been the case in recent weeks at Chelsea when results weren’t quite going our way. And even though I wasn’t a part of it because of my injury, it hurts me as well because I’ve been in that position. And I just want to do anything I can to be alongside my teammates during those moments. I want to push to be out on that field so much more.

When I was out for two months watching training every day, and just not being able to do what I love, it hurts, and it makes you want to come back that much more. And now, when I come back and anytime I get to step out on the field, I truly feel blessed.

There have definitely been tough moments, you know? I suffered this knee injury recently, after the World Cup. [Before that] I was feeling super confident coming back into the team, getting minutes right away and feeling on top of my game. Then the injury comes and you really think to yourself why does stuff like this happen? And that’s where, for me personally, I’ve definitely been able to kind of lean into my faith and trust that this is happening for a reason and God truly has something bigger planned for me after this recovery as far as football, and that’s what pushed me through.

It’s really a test of your patience and your faith waiting to find out if there’s something going wrong.

I think that’s the first thought in your head. Why is this happening? Someone once taught me that when I go to pray, I shouldn’t go asking for God to fix things. I just say help me to see this from your perspective. Because I think when you do that, I think he understands that there’s bigger things to come. There are things happening, you know, years down the line that he knows and he has planned for me, and this is all leading up to it.

After this injury, I worked a lot in the gym. I feel like I’ve become a lot stronger. I feel like I’m gonna be a better player in future years because of this. That’s the answer he gave me, and that’s what I realized over time. It’s not like asking for anything. It’s just having him there and feeling his blessing over you.