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U.S. men's soccer wants to protect star players

| Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 7:39 p.m.
Christian Pulisic scored a goal and assisted on another for the United States on Friday in a World Cup qualifier.
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Christian Pulisic scored a goal and assisted on another for the United States on Friday in a World Cup qualifier.

ORLANDO, Fla. — After watching Christian Pulisic repeatedly get hacked down and removed early for his safety during the United States' crucial 4-0 World Cup qualifying win over Panama, former American goalkeeper Kasey Keller predicted top European clubs might refuse to release players to national teams unless referees in CONCACAF better protect stars.

“We're not going to let you play in these kind of games with referees and federations that are going to let you get hit like this, because we're not going to put that investment in a player that then we're going to lose for stretches,” the ESPN analyst envisioned them saying. “It would be a huge loss, not only for the U.S., but for everybody.”

Pulisic, the 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund midfielder from Hershey has emerged as the top American player. He helped the U.S. move into position to qualify for its eighth consecutive World Cup on Tuesday at Trinidad and Tobago. Pulisic made his national team debut in March 2016 and already has eight goals in 19 international appearances, including six in World Cup qualifying.

He scored the go-ahead goal in the eighth minute Friday, then crossed to Jozy Altidore for the goal that doubled the lead in the 19th. Pulisic was kicked in the back of the left calf by Michael Murillo in the 48th minute, earning the defender a yellow card. Down for a minute and needing treatment from head athletic trainer Jim Hashimoto, Pulisic limped when he re-entered the match after a 2½-minute absence.

Pulisic was upended by Anibal Godoy's slide tackle from behind into his right leg in the 51st. Ahead by three goals, U.S. coach Bruce Arena replaced Pulisic with Dax McCarty in the 57th.

“He's been getting beat up in these games in CONCACAF, and that's the way it is. It doesn't look like anything is going to change,” Arena said. “He took a few shots, and we thought it was smart to get him off the field.”

Former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, now a Fox commentator, said violent play in qualifiers would dwindle if video assistant referees were used. Some leagues adopted the technology this year.

“If that had happened in an MLS game or I guess now in a Bundesliga game or a Serie A game, there would be guys who would have been gone earlier,” Lalas said. “If he's not to a certain extent protected, as all players should be, then it's just a matter of time before somebody gets him when he's not prepared or not looking.”

Pulisic was given a standing ovation by the crowd as he walked off and greeted by Arena with a handshake and an endearing arm around the shoulder. He doesn't face those type of tackles with that frequency in Germany. He was fouled repeatedly during the March qualifier in Panama City.

“Panama is a physical team, so it's always tough playing against them,” Pulisic said. “Yeah, got kicked a few times tonight, but I'll be fine. I'll be fine.”

Pulisic has been dubbed “Wonder Boy” by Lalas and current American goalkeeper Tim Howard. Opposing defenses in qualifiers this year have focused on disrupting him.

“He knows it's coming,” right back DeAndre Yedlin said. “Teams are going to target him, and he's experienced enough to know that he needs to protect himself, and what sort of tackles to go into and what not. And as you can see, it didn't faze him. He had a goal and an assist and was a great player for our team.”

Arena faults FIFA's regulations in which a player earns a one-game suspension for two yellow cards at any point in qualifying, which stretches 16 games over nearly two years for teams in the final round in the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

“It's the stupidest. I don't understand it. I'm just happy I haven't been around this stuff for a lot of years. I'd lose my mind,” said Arena, who returned as U.S. coach in November after a decade at the club level. “The referees aren't giving out yellow cards, too, because they realize that players will be suspended the next game, so we never know what kind of mentality the referee is going to be.”

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