Christian Pulisic returns to the USMNT just when he needs it most
In soccer’s hyper-inflated marketplace, Christian Pulisic is worth an unfathomably large amount of money, yet that price tag has been of little value to him over these past couple of months.
Despite being the subject of a $73 million transfer acquisition by English Premier League club Chelsea in January, the 21-year-old U.S. men’s soccer star has barely featured in first-team action past the opening weeks of the season.
As Chelsea head coach Frank Lampard has found other players to rely upon and a system that may not be ideally suited for the speedy, talented and crafty Pulisic, American soccer’s shining light finds himself in the unfamiliar position of being on the outside looking in.
All of this is why this week’s break in European club action for international duty provides a neat and timely respite. On Friday, Pulisic will lead the U.S. against Cuba in the team’s inaugural match in the CONCACAF Nations League (FS1, 7 p.m. ET) before heading north of the border to take on Canada next Tuesday.
“(Head coach) Gregg Berhalter has fostered an environment with the national team that (Pulisic) enjoys,” FOX soccer analyst Alexi Lalas told me in a telephone conversation. “I think that in many ways, this could not have come at a better time. Having this little spell with the national team means he can unburden himself a bit from the situation. He will play — and he should get a positive experience.”
The switch from German Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea and these corresponding struggles this season have provided Pulisic with the biggest challenge of his young career. Since heading to Germany at age 15, he had been on essentially a permanent upward trajectory, lofty enough for him to already be considered by many as the best player American soccer has ever seen.
After beginning the season as a Chelsea starter, Pulisic has been featured just twice since August. He played a League Cup clash against fourth-tier Grimsby Town and came off the bench for 10 minutes in an EPL game against Southampton, chiming in with an assist. Yet he has clearly slipped down the midfield pecking order, behind wingers Mason Mount, Willian and Callum Hudson-Odoi.
“Yeah, of course, it is very frustrating, but I will continue to work my hardest because I want to play,” Pulisic told NBC’s Joe Prince-Wright recently. “There are going to be challenges. I knew it was going to be tough coming here. It’s never going to be easy. I’ve got to grind it out. I want to be back and be a part of the team and help the team win games.”
Gaining momentum and settling quickly into an elite EPL club is no easy task. Kevin de Bruyne and Mohamed Salah both failed to shine in West London, moved elsewhere and are now considered two of the very best players in the world.
It’s a bit harder to find perspective in Pulisic’s case, because American soccer wants him to succeed so badly. The U.S. game has never had a homegrown product that shined at this kind of elite level. When Pulisic made the switch to the EPL, the prospect of seeing him thrive on the biggest stages seemed tantalizingly near. But then the roadblock came into play.
“He’s a phenomenon of a player who embodies our hopes and dreams as American soccer fans,” Lalas explained. “We think that when he thrives, it validates our belief in American soccer. I expect Christian to fight through it, but that might not mean he becomes a regular starter in the next six months.
“It’s important to realize what a unique situation Chelsea is in, with a new young coach ... a big club going through a transition. Going through this battle might not be a bad thing for him long term, but it is challenging.”
On the American front, this week will be a fine opportunity to get some playing time, gain some confidence and put himself back in front of the fans who love him most.
The Nations League holds promise as a worthy new competition. The European version debuted recently and has already gained traction. For the USMNT, it won’t be long before thoughts start turning to the qualifying campaign for the 2022 World Cup, a time when Berhalter’s developmental pieces should be ready for their time in the spotlight.
Pulisic’s time has already come, but clambering up to the next rung of the soccer ladder isn’t going as smoothly as he would have liked. What comes next — and how he handles it — will be a daunting test.
But things can move quickly in the frenetic cycle of the EPL and as quickly as a player can fall from favor, he can also earn his way back. Pulisic will hope to use this week, and some home comfort, as the springboard for a revival.