Christian Pulisic Is Headed to Chelsea. Is American Soccer Ready?

Christian Pulisic.
Christian Pulisic of Borussia Dortmund in Madrid on Nov. 6. Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

For fans of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, Christian Pulisic was the silver lining. Blame for the squad’s World Cup qualification debacle arrowed out in just about every direction. It hit every executive, both sets of coaches, and all of the players—except for him.

As a 18 year old, Pulisic established himself two seasons ago as a starter for a Borussia Dortmund team that made a run to the Champions League quarterfinals. He scored three goals and assisted seven more in his first full season in the German Bundesliga. And after the USMNT’s early struggles in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, the teenager basically did all he could to nearly single-handedly drag his country across the finish line.

He was barely old enough to vote or get a tattoo without his parents’ permission, and yet he scored or assisted on 12 of the U.S.’s 17 goals in that final qualification round.

So, sure, fine, that still wasn’t enough to get the team to Russia 2018. But the answer to the lingering “When will U.S. soccer have its first superstar?” question seemed like it finally could be answered “right now.”

On Wednesday, Chelsea confirmed Pulisic’s presumed star status, giving Dortmund 64 million euros (about $73 million) to secure the rights to the now 20-year-old American’s playing future. (Chelsea has loaned Pulisic to Dortmund until the summer, allowing him to finish out the season with his current club.) Pulisic joining Chelsea, winners of two of the past four Premier League titles, feels like one of those “American soccer has finally made it” moments. Other USMNT stalwarts have joined big European clubs before—Tim Howard spent three up-and-down seasons with Manchester United, Clint Dempsey lasted one year at Tottenham, and Landon Donovan made six sub appearances during a half-season loan to Bayern Munich—but not like this. The transfer more than triples the previous record for an American player, and it makes Pulisic the third-most expensive player in Chelsea history.

Chelsea, though, was just confirming what we already knew about Pulisic: In a way no American player ever has, he demands your attention whether he has the ball at his feet or not. All recklessness and right angles, he skitters, seemingly out of control, directly toward defenders, teases them into reaching for the ball, and then cuts away at the last possible moment. Rarely have USMNT fans been able to just enjoy watching a great player play. The team occupies a strange hinterland in which it’s bigger and richer than all of its continental opponents but immediately becomes an underdog as soon as international play begins. In North America, every result that isn’t a win is a disaster, and against anyone else, the team has to throw style out the window and do whatever it can to win. That’s why the most memorable individual performance of the past 20 years is the one when Howard—the goalkeeper, the line of last resort—had to make 16 saves against Belgium. (Reminder: The team lost that game and was eliminated from the 2014 World Cup in the first round of the knockout phase.)

Now, qualification catastrophe be damned, U.S. fans could at least look forward to the opportunity to soak in a decade-plus of Pulisic. Except, we were barely able to watch him in 2018. The USMNT played all 11 of its matches under an interim manager, and Pulisic appeared in only three of them. Meanwhile, back at Dortmund, his production fell off last season, and this year, he’s lost his spot in the starting lineup. Did the hype train need someone to pull the emergency break? No. Pulisic is still on the right trajectory, but it’s worth looking into what befell him in the past couple of seasons before imagining future potential glory with Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea, or even—more to our wildest dreams—Gregg Berhalter and the United States.

Chaos seemed to follow Pulisic the past two years. Last season, Dortmund cycled through two opposite but equally inadequate managers, Peter Bosz and Peter Stöger, which was the philosophical equivalent of going from Mike Martz to Rex Ryan halfway through an NFL season. Despite the upheaval, Pulisic remained a consistent starter under both regimes. In the Bundesliga, he started 12 more games than he did the previous year, and while his total production remained roughly the same (four goals, five assists), his goal-contribution rate (goals plus assists per 90 minutes) dropped (0.59 to 0.35). Goals and assists are frustratingly noisy statistics, though, and it might make more sense to consider Pulisic’s “expected” statistics, which take into account how often goal-scoring chances are converted historically. According to FiveThirtyEight, Pulisic’s 2016–17 season was the seventh-best European campaign by a teenage nonstriker this decade (0.52 expected goals plus assists per 90 minutes). His 2017–18 season (0.42) would slot in at 12th on that list.

After these performances, transfer speculation around Pulisic was linked with pretty much all of the European heavyweights. Yes, Chelsea, but also Bayern Munich and Liverpool—literally every wealthy club. A move to a bigger club coming off of that much hype during last summer’s transfer window would’ve added potentially damaging pressure and uncertainty to a still-blossoming career. At a big club in the Premier League, where there’s usually an annual competition between six of the dozen richest teams in the world for four qualifying places in the Champions League, the then still-teenage Pulisic would’ve been fighting against a slew of highly touted and highly paid teammates for playing time from a manager who didn’t have eyes for much beyond winning in that moment.

In other words, he’d have shifted to the opposite track of the one he’s been on at Dortmund, which in recent years has given more playing time to under-23 players than all but three of Europe’s Top 20 clubs. Since Dortmund can’t compete financially with the Barcelonas and Manchester Uniteds, the club has instead opted to focus on scouting elite young players, training them up, letting them play, and then selling them for massive profit, exactly as they have now done with their American star. And over the summer, Dortmund hired Lucien Favre, a respected manager with a consistent track record of getting his teams to outperform their financial standing. So, it made sense for Pulisic to remain at Dortmund for at least another season.

Halfway through the Bundesliga season, though, Pulisic has started only five games and racked up 483 minutes of playing time—way behind his pace in either of the previous two seasons. He’s struggled with a handful of injuries, but even when healthy, he’s no longer a starter for the Bundesliga-leading team.

But just because his playing time has been down doesn’t mean his downtrend has continued. Under Favre, Pulisic’s per-minute production is back up to where it was two years ago (0.56 goals plus assists per 90 minutes). And he has been efficient in other crucial areas as well. According to a stat called “packing,” which simply tallies up how many opponents a player bypasses with a dribble or a pass, Pulisic has been a much better outlet for his teammates than he was last year, while his passing and dribbling have remained at roughly the same level of effectiveness.

The main reason Pulisic hasn’t been seeing the field is that Dortmund has spent this year cultivating its next wunderkind, who has actually been playing better than the American. Jadon Sancho, an 18-year-old England winger, is currently producing for the club at a rate (1.14 goals-plus-assists per 90 minutes) nearly double anything Pulisic has ever done. In fact, only seven other players in all of Europe’s Top 5 leagues are putting up better numbers so far this season. After moving to Dortmund from Manchester City for an 8 million pound fee last year without even having seen any top-flight playing time, he already looks like he might be the best prospect produced by a club that consistently churns out blue chippers.

Before there was Pulisic, there was Ousmane Dembélé, the bipedal winger whom Dortmund sold to Barcelona for an initial fee of 105 million euro after just one season in Germany. And before Dembélé, there was Mario Götze, the World Cup–winning goal-scorer whom the club sold to Bayern Munich for 37 million euro. “At many clubs, Pulisic would be considered a once-in-a-generation prodigy but [Dortmund] have created something more valuable: a production line of once-in-a-generation prodigies,” Murad Ahmed of the Financial Times wrote last January. Since then, that production line started moving so quickly that the 18-year-old right winger is a better option than the 20-year-old right winger, who’s a better option than almost everyone else.

“We still rate [Pulisic] in the top four U-21 players in the world (behind Sancho, PSG’s Kylian Mbappé, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Kai Havertz),” said Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at 21st Club, a consultancy that’s created its own player rating system akin to the NBA’s real plus-minus statistic.

With Pulisic’s playing time limited and his value as high as ever, it finally made sense for both Pulisic and Dortmund to make a deal during the January transfer window. It’s a landmark day on the fledgling timeline of American soccer, but what will it mean for Pulisic?

While all of the Top 6 teams in the Premier League operate within varying levels of constant volatility, Chelsea throws its toys out of the playpen more often than anyone else. Since the mercurial Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003, Chelsea has won five Premier League titles and one Champions League trophy. However, 13 different managers, including two separate stints from Guus Hiddink and José Mourinho, have stood on the sideline during the Abramovich era, and the club’s impatience with young talent has become a running joke: Manchester City’s Kevin De Bruyne, Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, and Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku were all sold by Chelsea at one point. So there are risks. But there are also obvious upsides.

“It’s hard to make a call on whether a player should be at Dortmund or Chelsea—it’ll really depend on the player, circumstance, etc.,” Chaudhuri said. “But as a generalization, it’s better for a player to be developed at a better club, because ultimately a) it’s a signal of his potential, and b) he’ll get access to the best coaches, facilities, and so on.”

There is no perfect situation at the top of the European soccer ladder. Again, this move now makes a whole lot of sense. Even though Chelsea had most of the leverage in negotiations because of Pulisic’s refusal to sign a contract extension with Dortmund, the team still made him the 25th-most expensive player of all time. And the decision to loan him back to Dortmund perhaps suggests a form of newfound patience at the club. There’s also a clear pathway to playing time, as two of the club’s starting attackers, Willian and Pedro, are on the wrong side of 30, while the third, Belgian superstar Eden Hazard, has said it’s his “dream” to play for Real Madrid. Plus, the current manager, Maurizio Sarri, employs a high-powered pass-heavy brand of soccer that suits his new American arrival. At his previous job with Napoli, Sarri turned a trio of previously unspectacular forwards into one of the best attacking tridents in the world. Of course, we’ll see if he’s given the necessary time to do the same with Pulisic at Chelsea.

The next five months at Dortmund promise to be somewhat awkward: Everyone knows Pulisic is leaving, and any playing time he gets is playing time that wasn’t given to another potential prospect. Now that the USMNT finally has a full-time coach, though, Pulisic will be back in the picture as the team preps for this summer’s 2019 Gold Cup, its first competitive games since the infamous loss to Trinidad and Tobago that kept the team from making the trip to Russia. And in the Premier League, with its flush television package across NBC, NBC Sports, and CNBC, Pulisic’s games will certainly be much easier to watch than they are now. In the coming years, it will be up to him whether he can break into the starting lineup for one of the biggest clubs in the world. Whatever happens for Pulisic at his next club, U.S. fans are not forgetting: He’ll only be 24 once the next World Cup rolls around.