Sports

What Happened to Christian Pulisic?

The best U.S. men’s soccer player has become a benchwarmer at Chelsea.

Pulisic holds the ball behind his head to take a throw-in
Christian Pulisic during the Premier League match between Leeds United and Chelsea at Elland Road in Leeds, England, on Saturday. Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

We have entered the golden age of American male soccer players in Europe.

Twenty-year-old Sergiño Dest is firmly ensconced in Barcelona’s rotation. Italian juggernauts Juventus are clearly better when 22-year-old Weston McKennie plays. The presumptive champions of the Premier League are one sprained Ederson pinkie away from turning their title hopes over to Zack Steffen, a 25-year-old American goalkeeper. Yunus Musah—an 18-year-old midfielder with La Liga’s Valencia who is eligible to play for (and hotly pursued by) the national teams of England, Italy, and Ghana—announced Monday that he was committing his future to the U.S. Twenty-year-old Daryl Dike, an MLS rookie last season, kicked a ball so hard in England’s second division—seriously, it felt like watching Shaq shatter a backboard—that this week an unspecified EPL team offered to pay $10 million for him, and Orlando City turned it down.

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There are a dozen other examples to point to. These days “playing regularly for the second-best team in Germany,” as Tyler Adams does, doesn’t even qualify for the quick recap. Times are good right now, unimpeded as they are by anything so frivolous as “results from competitive matches,” the last of which the U.S. played nearly a year and a half ago, against Cuba. The men’s national team won its last three friendlies by a combined score of 19–2. So many young players are doing so well that the United States is sending a team of second- and third-stringers to Olympic qualifying this week, because the clubs of many of the best young players consider them too valuable to be released for the tournament.

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And yet, despite all this good news, for much of the new year, a single cloud has blotted out the shine of this promising new era. Though somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout, there is little joy in the fan base—Christian Pulisic is on the outs.

Pulisic holds a special, doted-upon place in the psyche of U.S. fans because he was the first of this thrilling generation of players, the ray of hope that heartened them through the darkness of the 2018 World Cup qualification failure. That’s why he still feels like the protagonist of U.S. men’s soccer, like his arc is the one that the team’s narrative hews most closely to. So despite the plethora of young American stars, when Pulisic is in trouble, it can feel like the entire enterprise is in trouble.

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In January, Pulisic’s club, Chelsea, fired its manager Frank Lampard and replaced him with the former Paris Saint-Germain manager Thomas Tuchel, who once coached the young American at Borussia Dortmund. In the 10 games Chelsea has played in the Premier League since Tuchel’s appointment, Pulisic had only one start, in the club’s most recent match on March 13, where he was also the first Chelsea player to be subbed off. He has barely 200 league minutes, zero goals, and one assist under Tuchel. In the club’s last Champions League game, Pulisic played three minutes. A few weeks ago, he was subbed into a Premier League game for one minute, where he had about as much impact on the pitch as you would have.

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Tuchel tried to reassure everybody last week when asked about the 22-year-old’s lack of playing time, admitting that his treatment of Pulisic was “a bit unfair.” The manager suggested that during this period of feeling out his new team, showcasing a player he knew from his time in Germany might be a lower priority than seeing what those who are new to him can do. It’s true that Tuchel has tinkered extensively; statistics service OptaJoe says no manager in the Premier League has changed their starting lineup as often since he was appointed. Not a great situation for Pulisic, but there is a logic to this. Before the panic buttons even had time to cool off, though, Tuchel dampened hopes that Pulisic’s role would soon grow by adding, “I know what impact he can have in the last 20 or 30 minutes.”

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So it’s tough to tell what to make of the fact that Tuchel did start Pulisic on Saturday, in Chelsea’s last league match until April. Was it a belated note of apology for trying to verbally box the player into a super-sub role? That seems unlikely. Chelsea has a big Champions League match Wednesday against Atlético Madrid, so Pulisic’s start could be read as him being firmly in the second string, saving legs on the first team for the more important match in a few days. Chelsea’s opponent Saturday, Leeds United, presents something of a unique challenge among the Premier League squads, pressing frantically and man-marking under the direction of mad scientist manager Marcelo Bielsa. Tuchel likely introduced more width to try to spread the defense out and force the Leeds players to cover more ground.

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The result—a frantic, offensively challenged 0–0 draw—is unlikely to change Tuchel’s tactics permanently. The manager has largely preferred to play two narrow inside forwards on either side of a striker in the place of outright wide players, where Pulisic has typically been deployed for Chelsea. There’s a lot of overlap between the skill sets of this kind of player and a modern winger, and Pulisic, especially coming up in Dortmund, seems like he has the background to play there. But shortly after the new manager’s appointment came reports that Pulisic was playing as a striker in training, meaning perhaps Tuchel has doubts about his prowess on the wings. That would be bad news for the American’s prospects, no matter how Tuchel tries to gloss it over.

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But make no mistake: This is what Pulisic signed up for. It is not the worst-case scenario. On the contrary, it was always the most likely outcome of signing with Chelsea, which has seethed with personnel turnover ever since oligarch Roman Abramovich purchased the club in 2003. Pulisic was purchased by one manager, arrived under another, and is now playing for a third, all in the span of two years. His team is famous for forever turning its focus to the shiny new things and forcing the old ones to up their performance if they hope to stay in the spotlight. That was especially true this season. Chelsea was newly released from a transfer ban and saw a pandemic-affected market with far more sellers than buyers, so it stocked up on so many hybrid winger/playmaker/strikers you’d think it was planning to scalp them in the parking lot.

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Three of the team’s summer 2020 buys—Timo Werner, Kai Havertz, and Hakim Ziyech—as well as Chelsea academy graduates Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi, play in positions Pulisic could theoretically start in. But all three have also struggled to adapt this season. Werner scored 28 league goals last season for RB Leipzig and has only five so far this season. Havertz—Chelsea’s second-most expensive signing ever—likewise thrived in Germany’s Bundesliga, but has scored just once this year. Ziyech provided 10 or more assists in each of the last four seasons in the top Dutch league and has only three for Chelsea in EPL play. Among the most obvious ways for Chelsea to improve the form that got Lampard fired would be to get one or more of those guys going. (The other, fixing the defense, Tuchel seems to have accomplished. Chelsea has allowed just two goals in its past 10 Premier League games.) Tuchel is giving them plenty of chances.

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Or perhaps he simply prefers Werner’s (hypothetical) goal threat or Ziyech’s (hypothetical) passing or Mount’s versatility to Pulisic’s dribbling wizardry for his lineups. The problem then wouldn’t be skill—earlier this week Manchester City fullback João Cancelo listed Pulisic as the toughest opponent he’s faced in the Premier League—but style, at least until Pulisic proves that he can be Tuchel’s sort of player.

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Pulisic’s frustration with his lack of playing time led to reports this week that one of Bayern Munich, Liverpool, or Manchester United would try to purchase him this summer—quite the three-headed rumor monster to have as a backup plan. Leaving Chelsea is often the best thing that can happen for a talented young player’s career. This is the club that lost patience and sold Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne overseas only to have them return to the Premier League with rival clubs and win Player of the Season awards. Could Pulisic succeed at any of those clubs? Absolutely. Will he? That’s far from guaranteed.

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The single biggest limitation to Pulisic’s career is not talent but an unfortunate proclivity for injuries. He is good enough to start for nearly any team in the world, but the worry is that he may not be able to reach that level enough of the time. His career arc is beginning to look Sisyphean, building momentum as he gains his rhythm, thrilling upon reaching top form, then tumbling back down with some knock or nag to do it all over again. If U.S. fans are going to be gloomy about anything, it should be the root cause rather than the symptoms of his club struggles. Hitting a rough patch at a club that’s all but guaranteed to produce them is inevitable—but so rarely getting to see Pulisic at his best for an extended period of time is frustrating, especially given how often his various recoveries keep him away from the national team.

This pattern doesn’t have to cast a pall over the entire program, though. While Pulisic remains one of his country’s most dangerous players, enough talent has arrived to turn the team’s story into an ensemble drama, filled with ups (Timothy Weah and Josh Sargent are both looking good right now) and downs (Jordan Morris is hurt again; Gio Reyna has struggled lately). A healthy, in-form Pulisic makes the USMNT better, but that’s now true of a lot of players, which gives him a little more leeway to work himself back to his peak. Wherever that may be.

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