With his first few Chelsea games in the book, can Christian Pulisic live up to the hype?
Christian Pulisic hasn’t officially created any history over the past couple of weeks, except – he kind of has.
He is not the first American to play in the English Premier League, far from it. Elite players from the United States have tried their hand in the EPL for more than two decades.
When he joined Chelsea in a whopping $73 million transfer from German giant Borussia Dortmund, he wasn’t even the first American to sign for one of England’s elite clubs. Tim Howard, at the start of a 13-year career in England, played in goal for none other than Manchester United.
Yet in so many ways, the 20-year-old Pulisic’s move does feel like the first…something. Certainly, no American player has ever headed to the world’s highest profile league with such expectation and buzz around him.
Brought in to try to replace Real Madrid-bound Eden Hazard, one of the global game’s very best players, Pulisic doesn’t just have the U.S. soccer public gazing upon him from afar, but also plenty of skeptical souls in England casting their eye over his every move.
— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) August 11, 2019
After three games, Pulisic’s stint with Chelsea has been highlighted by a standout performance in the European Super Cup — an annual one-off game between the Champions League winner and the Europa League champion. Chelsea fell to Liverpool on penalty kicks last week, but Pulisic gave a glimpse of what he can do.
“He is a big signing for us,” new Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard said. “I think it took him a bit of time early in the game to get his feeling, but once he did, you could see his confidence with carrying the ball and the things he can create.
“So, I’m really happy with him and I think there is lots more to come, all good signs for what he can be for the club.”
However, that performance came in the middle of Chelsea disappointment in the club’s opening two EPL games of the fresh campaign. A 4-0 drubbing by Manchester United began Lampard’s reign and gave Pulisic his first action as a substitute, where neither he nor any of his teammates were able to shine.
Pulisic and Giroud cut Liverpool open ✨ pic.twitter.com/HsqnsBjHDw
— B/R Football (@brfootball) August 14, 2019
Sunday brought a 1-1 draw at home to Leicester City, a result that most felt Chelsea were fortunate to escape with after giving up a series of chances in the second half. Pulisic started and produced a solid and occasionally explosive performance before being replaced midway through the second half.
“In some ways, this is a unique opportunity for Chelsea that they haven’t had for the past 15 years,” British soccer expert Aidan Magee, of Sky Sports, told me in a telephone conversation. “Every year there has been pressure and expectation to win the (EPL) title. This time, there is a chance to invest in youth and give them a chance to shine. Pulisic is going to be a part of that. What people expect from Chelsea is tempered hugely this year by the transfer ban.”
Ah yes, the transfer ban. Chelsea was prevented from signing new players in the most recent transfer window because of sanctions imposed by FIFA over numerous rules violations. That embargo will also last through the January window that is often used to acquire talent.
The club doesn’t have the greatest reputation in terms of bringing through young players, but Pulisic has found himself in a somewhat fortunate situation where Chelsea now has little choice. Signing the best and most expensive talent in the world was not an option last summer, and the West London team got around it in Pulisic’s case by signing him from Dortmund months before the ban kicked, then loaning him back to the German team.
Ruthless competition for places, in a results-driven business, is one of the major reasons why the process of allowing emerging players time to grow at major teams has so often proven to be a tricky business.
And that is why U.S. soccer legend Landon Donovan initially had some reservations about Pulisic’s big move.
“He is (20) and needs to be playing games,” Donovan told ESPN, soon after the deal was inked in February. “It is hard to turn down the allure of somewhere like Chelsea, but it is the same argument I’ve made since I was 20…if you are not playing games, you are getting worse.”
Pulisic has some obstacles to overcome, but he has experienced tough times before and managed to shine through regardless.
Paul Pogba is all class with Christian Pulisic 🤝pic.twitter.com/XnALqg8NY0
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) August 11, 2019
The U.S. failure to reach the World Cup last season was not only the biggest disappointment of his young career, but also meant that for most EPL fans, the first glimpse they are getting of his abilities is now. That adds pressure and scrutiny onto a small sample size of early season games, at a time when the young Chelsea squad is still finding its feet.
“He is not a name that has been spoken about much in England until he arrived here,” Sky Sports’ Magee added. “Most of the Chelsea supporters will never have seen him play before. Those fans are realistic about what to expect from the club this season, but having a big price tag on your head still puts you firmly in the spotlight. How he handles that will dictate how his time at Chelsea goes.”