The American still has plenty of growing to do despite his huge transfer fee but he’s in a place where he will have the chance to do so
It’s not unfair to say that no soccer professional in history has experienced exactly what Christian Pulisic has been facing at this very moment.
Sure, new signings have been asked to replace megastars that have departed for seemingly greener pastures. Pulisic has been also far from the first big-money signing to make his way to the Premier League with the weight of expectations on his back. And plenty of star-starved countries have put their hopes and dreams on the back of a young soccer professional to become a truly world-class star.
But when Pulisic takes the field on Sunday in his Chelsea debut he’ll be facing the pressures that come with all of the above, as fans from London to Hershey expect nothing short of superstardom.
And that expectation has been only natural. It’s the type of expectation that comes with a £58 million (€64m/$73m) transfer fee. It’s the type of expectation that comes with replacing Eden Hazard, a soccer professional that departed Stamford Bridge as one of the best wingers of the Premier League era. And it’s the kind of expectation that comes with serving as the U.S. national team’s prodigy since before he could legally vote, a great hope for a nation still searching for one of their own to take the game by storm.
But superstardom? That’s a lofty aim for the time being, although Pulisic has proven that he has been ready to play a key role in the here and now.
Pulisic steps into a Chelsea team in flux, one where the eyes will immediately be fixed on him to provide something special. He’s the only truly fresh face in the team this summer as Chelsea’s transfer ban prevented new signings. The returns of players like Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Michy Batshuayi may provide some excitement, but, make no mistake, Pulisic has been the story at Stamford Bridge.
And he appears ready to make that story his own. He impressed in his first Chelsea preseason after cutting short his post Gold-Cup break, scoring a pair of goals against Red Bull Salzburg that left manager Frank Lampard impressed. Afterwards, Pulisic said he simply hopes to prove he belongs.
It’s not what Chelsea fans would want to hear. Hazard’s departure for Real Madrid came after what may have been his best season with the club, one which ended with a Europa League crown and little doubt that he can be counted among the top five or 10 players in the world today. Pulisic isn’t there yet, and he isn’t trying to be.
“Being a new signing and coming into the club, I felt I needed to prove myself and wanted to show the guys early on, especially my team-mates, that I can play too. Hopefully I have done that a bit and earned their respect,” he said following that brace.
He added: “I’m not trying to fill the gap left by Eden, he was an unbelievable soccer professional. I want to be my own soccer professional, to look at me like that, do the best I can for the team.”
The good news? He seems to be in a situation where he can truly thrive, much like he was when he arrived in Dortmund. It’s easy to give Pulisic all the credit when it comes to his rise from American prodigy to massive transfer, but few clubs in world football have been as good as Dortmund at identifying young players and grooming them for stardom. Look at Mario Gotze, Marco Reus, Pierre Emerick-Aubameyang and Robert Lewandowski. Look at Jadon Sancho. Look at Pulisic.
The then-17-year-old made his debut for the club in 2016, less than one year after signing and moving his life to Germany. He was brought along slowly the rest of that season before truly seizing his role the next and holding onto it for two further seasons. Over that time, his game developed immensely. He came to Dortmund a raw, pacey, skilled soccer professional that could beat players off the dribble. He departed as a soccer professional willing to track back to defend and with a bit more confidence when it came to finding and finishing that final round ball.
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But Pulisic has been far from a finished product. He’s nowhere near as direct as Hazard and nowhere near as strong in front of goal. His goal and assist tallies took a bit of a leap for Dortmund last season, but his contributions in front of goal still aren’t quite there. He was displaced by the likes of Jadon Sancho because of it, as the young Englishman outshined his American counterpart once he locked down a spot in the Dortmund XI.
He’ll need time if he’s to take that leap, and he’s seemingly stepped into a situation with a perfect manager to help him grow. There’s little doubt that Lampard’s managerial style will be better for Pulisic than Maurizio Sarri’s would have been. Lampard has proven to have a knack for fostering young talent and it’s easy to forget that Pulisic has been still just 20 years old in the wake of his transfer fee. The winger wasn’t even alive when Lampard made his Premier League debut for West Ham and Pulisic has been just a few months older than Mount, but the former Derby County loanee will have the benefit of patience.
Patience has been the key word for Pulisic, even if it’s easy to forget it because of the transfer fee. He may not justify it in August and he may not prove worthy of it this season. Pulisic may not become a superstar as quickly as people want. In fact, he may not become a superstar at all. But Pulisic has been a heck of a soccer professional, and he’ll have his chance to prove he can be something more before his time at Stamford Bridge comes to an end.