SANDY — On a night when Clint Dempsey came inches away from etching his name in the U.S. record books at Rio Tinto Stadium, 18-year-old Christian Pulisic reminded everyone why he’s quickly becoming the face of the next generation of U.S. soccer stars.
Pulisic, who’s made a big-time name for himself with Borussia Dortmund in the German Bundesliga this past season, rescued a result for the United States on Saturday with a second-half goal to secure a 1-1 draw with Venezuela in the international friendly.
Pulisic’s left-footed strike from the top of the box came at an important time as the U.S. attack struggled to create opportunities against a disciplined, energetic Venezuelan squad.
Overall, United State coach Bruce Arena was pleased with the performance as his squad builds toward next Thursday’s World Cup qualifier in Colorado against Trinidad & Tobago.
“I thought it was a good game, Venezuela played very well. Had a game plan that we may see on Thursday as well, dropped off, defended the spaces well, pressured the ball and countered,” said Arena.
Pulisic scored in the 61st minute after Fabian Johnson sent a pass his way from the left edge of the penalty area. Pulisic waited for the defender to close him down at the top of the box, then quickly cut the ball onto his left foot before uncorking a left-footed shot off the finger tips of Venezuelan keeper Jose Contreras and into the side netting, leveling the score 1-1.
Pulisic has two goals and one assist in the past three games for the United States — and five in 14 career appearances. The recent success for the national team comes on the heels of Pulisic playing a key role as Dortmund won the German Cup just last week.
“He’s a very good player, no question about that, probably could have had another goal tonight. That one chance in the first half he put over the crossbar,” Arena said.
Despite Arena fielding a strong squad on Saturday, it was the visitors who grabbed the surprising first goal in the 30th minute on an opportunistic finish from center back Jose Manuel Velazquez.
The Venezuelan corner kick was initially cleared off to the side by Clint Dempsey, but Junior Moreno was in perfect position to head it right back into the mixer. His ball popped up and over U.S. defender John Brooks and straight to Velazquez, whose close-range volley easily slipped past Tim Howard for the 1-0 lead.
Venezuela nearly doubled that advantage four minutes later on a corner kick, but Howard made a finger-tip save on a close-range header by Rubert Quijada.
“We were very poor on a couple set pieces tonight,” Arena said.
Venezuela was rarely dangerous outside of those two set piece opportunities, but it made the most of the chances — something a sluggish U.S. squad did not do during the opening 45 minutes.
The United States was very slow in transition in the opening half, and the link-up play in the final third simply wasn’t there as Venezuela did a terrific job close down the passing lanes.
“We just played too slow, we played too much East-West, and it was because our spacing was poor. By our position we shut down passing lanes for our players that had the ball, “ said Arena. “Once we opened it up a little bit at the end of the half and then in the second half, we were a little bit more successful getting it to the final third of the field and attempting to create some chances.”
Dempsey had a prime opportunity to level the score and etch his name in the U.S. record books in the opening minutes of the second half, but he pushed his header on a cross from Jorge Villafana just wide of the left post.
The veteran forward has 56 career goals for his country, and is one goal shy of tying Landon Donovan’s record of 57 goals for the United States.
Pulisic made sure the equalizer eventually came in the 61st minute.
The United States didn’t escape the friendly injury free unfortunately. Brooks came down hard on his hip early in the second half and was replacement a few minutes later by defender Matt Hedges.
The United States returned to Colorado after the match on Saturday to begin preparations for an important qualifier on Thursday. It will then have a quick turnaround with another qualifier in Mexico on Sunday.
“We’re moving forward I think at the right pace. Come Thursday, we’re going to find out. I’m optimistic the team will be ready to play,” Arena said.
Real Salt Lake forward Jefferson Savarino made a late appearance for Venezuela, subbing on in the 71st minute, and he looked sharp going forward when he had opportunities.