Christian Pulisic seems stuck at Chelsea and stumbles towards the World Cup


Christian Pulisic fought from position in Chelsea’s 2-1 defeat by Southampton. (AP Photo/Ian Walton)

Christian Pulisic has been fighting for Chelsea Football Club since the day he arrived. He has carved his place amidst a throng of attackers who have been signed to replace him. He has battled injuries, COVID and depression. He’s struggled to win the trust of a manager who inherited him and then a manager he’d previously escaped, and all summer – with transfer rumors swirling – he’s vowed to keep fighting.

But in every long struggle, in sport or in life, there comes a time when a valiant struggle turns into a futile one.

It’s unclear if Pulisic has reached that tipping point. However, Tuesday evening offered alarming clues. The 23-year-old winger stumbled through 25 minutes as a full-back from the bench. He buckled under Southampton’s pressure and appeared to trip over the ball twice. He dug up weak crosses. He ran into the defenders rather than around them. His typically sharp soccer brain seemed overwhelmed.

And then, after the final whistle of a 2-1 loss, the force of it all seemed to be pushing him toward the tunnel. As Chelsea players exchanged handshakes with opponents and fans applauded, No 10 strutted out of sight.

Pulisic has never spoken publicly about his situation at Chelsea. He told ESPN last month that the constant competition for minutes is “just life in a big club” and “what you sign up for.” But he didn’t register This. He has not started any of Chelsea’s first five Premier League games. And if nothing changes in the next 48 hours, he’s stuck.

Europe’s summer transfer window closes on Thursday. Pulisic has been the subject of reported interest from a variety of clubs – Manchester United, Newcastle, Atletico Madrid and more. But according to multiple reports this week, Chelsea have decided to keep him.

And that seemed sensible for a while – for players and clubs alike. Every single week between now and the World Cup in November, barring an international break, will give the Blues two games. Realistically, Pulisic should play in many of them and start at least a few.

But now there is a slight panic. When coach Thomas Tuchel rotated his starting XI on Tuesday, he opted for Hakim Ziyech, not Pulisic. When Pulisic came on, he embraced the sidelines in an unfamiliar and unwanted role. And he didn’t look like his best self at all.

None of this prepares Pulisic to play for the USA in Qatar. None of this boosts his confidence or fitness. None of this helps his long-term development. The situation is becoming increasingly inhibiting. There was a time in his career when stiff competition might have propelled him; when discomfort produced growth. That time is fading or gone.

On the other hand, there is no empirical evidence that Pulisic’s US form is tied to his club form. More than most American players, he should be a fixture for the national team even as a Chelsea deportee. US head coach Gregg Berhalter helped him find his way.

“He’s a fighter. You’ll see, he’ll come onto the field,” Berhalter said earlier this month.

“I mean, every year it’s like, ‘He might not be a starter.’ You hear that every year,” Berhalter continued. “And every year he ends up on the field because of his contribution. He’s a goalscorer. He’s a winner. What I’ve seen from him over the past few years is that he completely changed his mentality and he’s embracing things like that. He’s not afraid of challenges like this. And I’m excited to see how he does this year.”

But he hasn’t performed particularly well so far this season. Whether that’s his fault or that of Tuchel or someone else is becoming increasingly irrelevant. It is becoming increasingly clear that he would be in better hands elsewhere.

Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s doing better somewhere different. There is no guarantee of playing time at Man United or even Newcastle. There is no need to take a rushed step just to move. But there is a growing need to explore options, especially as Chelsea continue to pursue other attackers – Everton’s Anthony Gordon and Barcelona’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang – who could push Pulisic further down his pecking order.

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Given that, the club’s stance that Pulisic will stay – while Ziyech and Callum Hudson-Odoi appear to be allowed to leave – is odd.

The hope, at least among many US fans, is that the Southampton defeat and a looming deadline could spur action. Perhaps Pulisic along with his agent could spur it on as well. But when he doesn’t, he’s stuck in an all-too-familiar state of uncertainty, “a constant feeling of having to prove myself over and over again,” as he puts it in a forthcoming book. He’ll have to do it again soon if he wants to sharpen up ahead of his first world championship.

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