USMNT 2-0 Bolivia takeaways: Christian Pulisic sets the tone with set piece precision

United States forward Christian Pulisic (10) is dragged down by Bolivia midfielder Hector Cuellar (22) during the second half in a 2024 Copa America match Sunday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

It had to be Christian Pulisic. The winger was named captain for the U.S. men’s national team’s opening game against Bolivia at the 2024 Copa America.

Three minutes into the match on Sunday, Pulisic and Tim Weah huddled by the corner flag as the U.S. set up for its first corner kick of the night. It was a short play between the two attacking players, quietly shuffling their way back into play — then a separation. Weah went down the line while Pulisic headed to the top of the 18-yard box where he received the ball from his teammate, took a few touches and buried his shot in the top right corner of the goal. Pulisic sprinted to the sideline looking for someone in the crowd until he finally found USMNT set piece coach Gianni Vio. The artist and his art.


Pulisic later provided the assist on Folarin Balogun’s goal to double the score before halftime. The U.S. remained on the front foot for the second half with 20 shots (eight on target). Instead of a lopsided finish, though, the U.S. settles for a two-goal win to start Group C play.

Paul Tenorio, Jeff Rueter and Greg O’Keeffe break down the key talking points…

This U.S. team needs Pulisic to be a game-changer if they are going to make a run in the tournament. Against teams like Bolivia, the hope is that you get some confidence-building moments and create the chemistry that carries you through in tougher games.

Pulisic, coming off of his best season in Europe, carried over a bit of momentum with a free kick goal against Brazil in a friendly in the lead up to Copa America. That rolled right into the opener Sunday night. Pulisic opened the scoring in the third minute off a short corner routine with Weah. Pulisic played it to Weah, got the ball back and carried it toward the top of the box, then whipped a curling shot to the far post that kissed the underside of the crossbar.

Pulisic also set up the second goal. He got the ball in space, turned and drove at the Bolivia back line and then fed Balogun on his left. The goal for Balogun, as detailed above, was an important one for building his confidence, something Pulisic might have understood when he fed him on the counter.

On the night, Pulisic played confidently and effectively. It was exactly what the U.S. needed.

After six USMNT games without a goal, and a difficult first season at Monaco, there were signs in the first half that Balogun’s confidence was shaky at best. At times he appeared disconnected from the USMNT’s otherwise vibrant attacking, unsure where best to take up space and not always able to hold the ball up as well as his undoubted talent has previously suggested.

At one stage he couldn’t control a ball pinged into him near the six-yard box and an attack subsequently fizzled out.

Like at his Ligue 1 club, the 22-year-old still seems to be adjusting his skill set to a side that dominates the ball (the USMNT may not always do that, but they had most of the possession in this contest).

Yet when Pulisic slipped a pass to him just before halftime any signs of uncertainty faded as quickly as he realized that nobody in a red shirt was going to attempt to close him down. Balogun set himself and arrowed a precise left-footed strike beyond Guillermo Viscarra and into the corner of the net.

Suddenly he was revitalized. Balogun thought he had scored again just after the restart only for it to be ruled offside.

Balogun’s overall display may not definitively close the debate on whether he should be a consistent first-choice starter, with the in-form Josh Sargent still staking a valid claim, but it showed why U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter continues to believe in him.

For far too long, Tyler Adams has existed more as a concept than an active soccer player. Since March 2023, the 25-year-old has spent the majority of his playing time recovering from injuries, mostly to his hamstrings. He was limited to 121 Premier League minutes in his first season with AFC Bournemouth and has been sparsely involved with his national team since serving as captain at the 2022 World Cup.

His shift was always bound to be short given that track record, but the fact he was able to start and play 45 competitive minutes without any visible impediment is a massive boost for the United States at this tournament. Adams was at the base of midfield and proactive when engaging with dribbling Bolivian opponents, often pushing further up the pitch than Reyna when the USMNT was out of possession. He was also the first to defend Reyna’s honor after he received a hard foul on the game’s first yellow card, jawing at the aggressor — a hallmark of his approach to leadership.

Granted, Bolivia doesn’t represent the staunchest opponent this USMNT will face in the Copa América. But Berhalter will take great comfort from Adams’ ability to look like his usual self — tidy in possession (completing 32 of his 37 pass attempts) and proactively aggressive out of it. For the U.S. to make a deep run in this tournament, they’ll almost certainly need Adams to anchor the midfield at its business end.

Ricardo Pepi ran onto a cross in the 90th minute inside the six-yard box — surely this would be a goal. Instead, Viscarra made a save on Pepi’s shot, then again saved the rebound that caromed off of Pepi.

The moment was the story of the second half for the U.S., and could become the story of the group standings. The U.S. will be pleased with the overall result, a win is a win after all. But in tournament play score lines matter, too.

The U.S. will close out group play against Uruguay. If they pick up a win against Panama in the next game and go into that final group game with the chance to win the group on the line, the goal differential tiebreaker could factor in.

The U.S. had multiple big chances in the second half to add on to the score. Pulisic had two great individual runs, one that ended in a blocked shot and the other with a nice save. Pepi had four very good looks at goal he couldn’t convert, the first in the 67th minute right after coming on and then again in the 79th minute when his clear shot from the top of the box was saved. Another Pepi shot forced a big save in the 81st minute, then the 90th minute double save on his looks inside the box. Balogun also had a goal called back for offside on Weah, who delivered the cross.

The moments were there for the U.S. to get a third, and even a fourth or fifth, but they settled for the 2-0 result and now must hope it doesn’t come back to bite them.

The U.S. coach spoke about his captain, Pulisic, “He goes out and and just competes and works really hard and that helps the team and then you add to the fact that he’s highly skilled and can make plays on the offensive end and create chances. It’s a great combination. What you see is him supporting his teammates, him backing guys, him pushing guys. To me it was an outstanding performance that he got coaches’ man of the match and it was much deserved.”

Berhalter also spoke about Pepi’s performance, “In that short period of time, to have that many goalscoring opportunities, to be that relentless with his running, with his pressing, with his hold up play, to me, he had an excellent game. Certainly for him something to build on. I know he was a little bit disappointed after the game but when you get that many chances in that short period of time against an aggressive team, you’re doing something right and we’re confident that the finishing will come.”

Group C resumes on Thursday.

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