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An American Enigma

Christian Pulisic’s Confounding Chelsea Career

Photo by Robbie Jay Barratt - AMA/Getty Images

One of the more toxic sights to be found on the toxic-drenched internet are the tweets fired off by United States Men’s National Team fans on Twitter anytime Chelsea play. The subject of the tweets is, of course, Chelsea’s enigmatic American: Christian Pulisic

USMNT Twitter isn’t for the faint of heart during the best of times, but Pulisic’s time in West London has generated a particularly hostile rage from the red, white, and blue masses.

To many USMNT fans, when Pulisic doesn’t feature in a Chelsea match, his talent is needlessly rotting away. A forlorn looking Pulisic raising a tattoo-covered arm to glumly scratch at his head while sitting on the Chelsea bench is a frustratingly frequent sight to this group. And when he does play, well, these US supporters believe the coach isn’t deploying him in a way that would maximize his talent.

But that’s just one section of USMNT fans. There’s an entirely separate group of Sam’s Army who think Chelsea’s number 10 is overrated, an opinion they are more than happy to share unprompted during any Chelsea match. They are more concerned with the exploits of players like Brenden Aaronson and Weston McKennie — the supposed real stars and real future of the USMNT.

If this all sounds confusing, that’s because it is. The debate around Pulisic is almost as confounding as the player himself. Because at age 24, now in his fourth Chelsea season, it remains unclear just how good — or not good — a player Pulisic is.

Borussia Dortmund v Hannover 96 - Bundesliga
Pulisic in action for BVB in February 2016
Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

Separating Pulisic, the promising player tantalizingly bristling with potential, from Pulisic, the savior of all things American soccer, is difficult. As difficult as it is for fans and pundits to extricate an actual human being from all the noise and chatter surrounding him, imagine how difficult it must be for the player himself.

In February 2016, at just 17 years old, Pulisic made his first Bundesliga start for Thomas Tuchel’s Borussia Dortmund. A month later, he became the youngest American to feature in a World Cup Qualifying match when came on as an 81st-minute substitute against Guatemala. The following month he scored his first Bundesliga goal, against Hamburg, which made him the youngest non-German to score in the German top flight. Not long after that, Pulisic’s goal for the US in a friendly against Bolivia made him the youngest USMNT player to score for the senior team.

Pulisic was quickly becoming the youngest USMNT player to do a lot of things. Youngest to score a goal in a World Cup Qualifier? Yes. Youngest to start a World Cup Qualifier? You bet. Youngest to score in a UEFA Champions League match? Oh yeah. The hype generated by all these firsts was, unsurprisingly, deafening.

Mexico v United States: 2022 World Cup Qualifying Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Fans of the USMNT had been desperate for a genuine global star: a player just as recognizable to a football fan in Thailand as he is to one in Texas. This desperation makes it difficult for Pulisic to simply be a good player. He has to either be a preeminent force on a top European club or a too-hyped bust.

It’s not enough for Pulisic to score a winner off the bench as a substitute because why wasn’t he starting the match in the first place? He can’t start a midweek match and then sit out the weekend’s match because the truly great players are supposed to play all the time. And if he isn’t great, then he must be awful for swindling everyone into believing in him.

US Men’s Soccer fans have a super-sized chip on their collective shoulders. (By contrast, US Women’s Soccer fans are too busy counting trophies to care what anyone thinks of them). Apparently, one can only tolerate so many “it’s called football” comments before it starts to grate. An American dazzling in the most watched league in the world every week could go a long way to legitimizing everyone with a “Yankee” accent involved with this sport. It might even lead to an American coach not being compared to Ted Lasso.

Chelsea Unveil New Signing Christian Pulisic Photo by Clive Howes/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

But even if Pulisic’s time at Chelsea is viewed in a vacuum and divorced from the hopes, dreams, and anxieties of excitable USMNT followers, expectation still weighs heavy. He played his first Chelsea match in the first match the 2019-20 season, a 4-0 defeat away to Manchester United. Crucially, due to a transfer ban, Chelsea couldn’t sign any new players in the preceding summer transfer window, but because Pulisic was signed in January from Borussia Dortmund and allowed to finish the 2018-19 season on loan there, he was, for all intents and purposes, still a new signing.

Hopes for that 2019-20 season were less optimistic than usual. A youth-first policy adopted out of necessity meant talented, but unproven academy players like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham, and Reece James would see more minutes than they otherwise probably would have. In the dugout stood Frank Lampard. A legend until the end of time for his Chelsea playing career, not much was expected of Lampard, the coach. After all, he only had one season of coaching experience on his CV: a sixth-place Championship finish with Derby County the previous campaign.

For the first time since Roman Abramovich took over the club in 2003, a top-4 finish — and the Champions League football that comes with it — didn’t seem to be the minimum requirement for Chelsea’s Premier League campaign. So long as the Blues avoided the ignominy of a bottom-half-of-the-table finish, most would have been happy.

Chelsea were still Chelsea, though. A six-match winning streak from late September through early November, rising from eleventh to third in the table, was all it took for the customary excitement to start running rampant again. Frank and the kids were more than alright.

The fourth match of Chelsea’s six-match romp featured a Pulisic hat trick in a 4-2 victory at Burnley. It was Pulisic’s first, second, and third Premier League goals and his performance featured an abundance of confidence and incisiveness from the left wing. It may sound crazy now — sacrilegious even — but for a moment it appeared that the heir apparent to Eden Hazard had arrived from a town in Pennsylvania best known for chocolates and candy bars.

But that bit of craziness was nothing compared to what was to follow later that season. Liverpool won the Premier League and that wasn’t even the most awful thing to happen to the world in 2020.

When football re-emerged from 100 days of COVID lockdown, without fans but with Chelsea in desperate need of points to secure a top-four finish, Pulisic scored four goals and added two assists across the team’s final eight matches during Project Restart. No Chelsea player registered more goals and assists over this time (though Willian also had four goals and two assists).

Champions League football for 2020-21 was achieved and an FA Cup (with Pulisic scoring a goal in the final) was nearly won. Chelsea were young, exciting, and looked to have the nucleus in place of a team that could challenge for big honors in a season or two — and Pulisic seemed ready to feature prominently in the club’s future success. Things were good. Things were perhaps too good.

Manchester City v Chelsea FC - UEFA Champions League Final Photo by Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images

Chelsea’s transfer ban ended, and as per Stamford Bridge tradition, an exorbitant amount of money was unwisely spent. Instead of gradually building upon the foundation Lampard had established in his first year as Chelsea coach, instant gratification was demanded.

In came expensive attackers Kai Havertz, Timo Werner, and Hakim Ziyech, all of whom would have the potential to take minutes away from Pulisic. How exactly the arriving three were supposed to all fit into an existing attacking structure that already featured Pulisic, Abraham, and Mount was anyone’s guess. Predictably, after failing to find any semblance of attacking rhythm and slumping to ninth in the table, Chelsea would fire Lampard, hire Tuchel, and go on to win the Champions League (ironically, on the strength of the team’s iron-clad defense — not its lavish, inconsistent attack). Chaos And Trophies™, baby.

Chaos, while a seemingly integral component to any trophy-winning Chelsea campaign, isn’t exactly ideal for a young player with copious scrutinizing eyeballs glaring at him. Pulisic would increasingly find playing time elusive. In both 2019-20 and 2020-21, Pulisic played over 1,700 league minutes. Last season, he played a little under 1,300 league minutes and has only started three of thirteen league matches this season (stats per FBref). Is Pulisic struggling because he’s not playing? Or is he not playing because he’s struggling?

It depends on who you ask.

Short-termism has had a deleterious effect on Chelsea. It’s hurt the club in a macro sense. Less than two years after winning the Champions League, FiveThirtyEight rate Chelsea’s odds of qualifying for next season’s competition at just 17% as we head into the World Cup break sitting eight. However, it may be more interesting to look at Chelsea’s decline on a micro level.

The individual careers that make up the large-scale rot prompt many questions. Would Ziyech still be a hipster darling if he’d not joined Chelsea? Would Werner have built upon his astonishing 34-goal 2019-20 Bundesliga season if he’d not left Leipzig for London?

Is Christian Pulisic actually good is just one of many quandaries facing Chelsea at the moment. A definitive answer has yet to arrive, but there is one certainty: opinions on the matter will not be hard to find.

Chelsea FC v Villarreal CF – UEFA Super Cup 2021 Photo by Lukas Schulze - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images
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