Sports

The $73 Million Man

Christian Pulisic showed promise amid unfair expectations in his first week with Chelsea.

Chelsea midfielder Christian Pulisic faces off with Leicester City's Ricardo Pereira
Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic faces off with a Leicester City defender on Sunday.
Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty Images

What makes a $73 million purchase worth it?

If you happened to have the amount of money that the English soccer team Chelsea paid Germany’s Borussia Dortmund for the services of American phenom Christian Pulisic lying around—don’t check your wallet, you would know—you could have used it to purchase Francis Bacon’s Portrait of George Dyer Talking, the 78th most expensive painting ever sold. (Add $27 million more to your pot and you could have purchased the 41st , Bacon’s Triptych, 1976, as Chelsea’s oligarch owner Roman Abramovich did in 2008.) You could have bought yourself the most-expensive home in Australia’s history. Or you could have fronted the budget for the 2016 Angry Birds movie. But then how would you expect to feel once you owned your own Bacon or estate or children’s motion picture based on a mobile-phone game?

If you had spent that much for a soccer player, would 30 minutes as a substitute in an embarrassing opening loss—featuring a couple of auspicious moments but also plenty of frustrating ones—seem worth it to you? How about 75 minutes and a start in the least important European final, with a promising through-ball assist and an exciting goal called back for being offside? What about 70 quiet, disconnected minutes in a dispiriting home draw against Leicester City on Sunday?

This is how Pulisic’s first week of competitive games at Chelsea has felt, as though he’s simultaneously carrying around the field the reputation of American soccer and a $73 million debt. Every minute and every touch is treated as a stock-up or stock-down moment. There’s little notion that this might have been an investment for the long term. It feels akin to purchasing the Bacon painting, propping it against a wall, and then deciding you don’t like it anymore.

Cynics argue that Pulisic was only bought by one of the big English clubs because he’s the most accessible port from which to access American soccer fans in 2019. In the stressed-sounding dissections of his play this week, there’s the sense that Pulisic has to prove he was worth every penny of the $73 million for what he can do on the field—that the only way to strike back at the naysayers who claim he’s a publicity stunt who won’t be able to hack it in the Premier League is to play up to his value independent of the marketing concerns. 

Which is ludicrous, because no one has any idea what a $73 million player is supposed to be, least of all in the bubble economy of soccer player evaluations. That money might as well be abstract. The opportunity cost for that $73 million is between Abramovich and whichever Bacon painting he passed up.

Time will tell whether Pulisic becomes a star in England, but he’s proved this week that he’s definitely good enough to play in the league today. Premier League teams started the likes of John Fleck and Tom Trybull and Dale Stephens in their first games of the season. Theo Walcott and Aaron Lennon are both still around, somehow clinging simultaneously to their youthful promise and their institutional knowledge, which feels like watching a thritysomething try to pass for a high-schooler on a TV show. Pulisic can hang with these guys.

The criticisms of Pulisic thrown around after the Leicester City game on Sunday are the same generic ones that get applied to every slight-of-build foreign attacker who has a bad day in England: He’s not strong enough. He’s too soft for the rough treatment dished out by Premier League defenders. He can’t process the game at the frantic English pace.

Never mind that he’s fast and good on the ball and able to spot passes like this one:

Anyone who thinks Pulisic might be cowed by the vaunted physicality of the Premier League has clearly never seen a CONCACAF qualifier. Paul Pogba may be a lot richer than Roman Torres, but that doesn’t mean it hurts any more when he cheap shots you. The Bundesliga has hard fouls too. They just come at you a little faster in England.

Pulisic’s best moments so far have mostly come from quick interchanges, one-touch combinations that spring someone for a shot on goal. His worst have been during stretches of the game where he’s the player farthest up the field, cut off from every other Chelsea player, with his only options being to hit a hopeful cross toward Olivier Giroud or overextend himself trying to beat his man off the dribble. It feels a little like he’s using the same playbook as Chelsea’s last left winger, Eden Hazard, who is one of the 10 best players in the world. Hazard could make something of these situations, isolating on a group of defenders and weaving through them like he’s James Harden. But Hazard plays for Real Madrid now, and Pulisic isn’t at his level yet.

Pulisic’s success at Chelsea will have as much to do with Chelsea as it does with Pulisic. Which is a problem. Chelsea is famously tumultuous, a ceaseless churn of players, coaches, and styles. The club hired its ninth manager this decade over the summer, former Chelsea legend Frank Lampard, who has just one year of management experience in the second division.
Chelsea is banned from signing any new players until the summer of 2020 after trying to work around some of FIFA’s rules regarding the signing of foreign teenagers. Hazard took literally half its offense with him when he left. He scored or assisted on 31 of Chelsea’s 63 Premier League goals last season. Any rational mind would not expect a 20-year-old to fill those shoes, but Chelsea is not exactly a bastion of rationalism when it comes to how new signings are going to perform. If the offense falls off a cliff without its Belgian superstar then it’s not going to take long for that $73 million figure to get swung around like a cudgel at Pulisic. It won’t be fair, but the people doling out blame won’t care.

Or, alternatively, Pulisic’s game could start to click. Lampard could adjust to his strengths, and they could each make the other better and rise above Chelsea’s patented swirl of chaos toward a triumphant first season. He could replace perhaps not all of Hazard’s production, but enough of it in his first year to where the transfer fee is forgotten. Nobody can tell you what a $73 million player looks like. They just know one when they see one.