Will Christian Pulisic start for Chelsea in Champions League final? Tackling the big question facing U.S. soccer’s biggest star
Not long after Christian Pulisic achieved the most glorious moment of his nascent soccer career, he stood before a board plastered with advertisements and faced a television camera and microphone prepared to beam his joy across the planet. He had been the principal agent of Chelsea Football Club’s advancement to the UEFA Champions League final, the biggest annual game in the world’s preeminent sport. His pride and delight were obvious.
And so was his pique.
All were warranted, for certain.
“Very frustrated,” he said, then shrugged his shoulders so powerfully he could have tweaked a trapezius (video below). “Um, yeah. There’s not much else to say. I wanted to play from the beginning, as I always do. I’ve had to continue to prove myself, over and over again. But, as always I just reach out to God, and He gives me strength. With that behind me, nothing can stop me, really.”
In the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal series against Real Madrid, Pulisic had scored the away goal that gave the Blues a substantial advantage for the return match at Stamford Bridge. Despite that goal, however, and the fact he’d performed exceedingly well through his 66 minutes against Real, Pulisic was not in the starting lineup for the second leg.
Beginning with the April 13 second game of the quarterfinal Champions League series against Porto, Pulisic has started eight times in 12 games including that competition, the FA Cup and the Premier League. Every one of those games, because Chelsea was in a tight competition for a 2021-22 Champions League berth, contained tremendous consequence. So even though there is no guarantee he’ll be on the team sheet when manager Thomas Tuchel submits it in advance of Saturday’s 3 p.m. EDT final against Manchester City, it’s more likely than not.
Were he not to start, Pulisic obviously would not be content. Judging by his second-leg performance against Real, though, he likely would channel any displeasure into his performance, as he did through a scintillating effort after entering that game midway through the second half and generating a clinching goal for teammate Mason Mount.
“In the first game it was what Christian does. That, to me, is a typical Christian performance: being able to terrorize the defense, make an impact by scoring goals and being dangerous,” USMNT head coach Greg Berhalter told Sporting News. “What I really liked in the second game was his mindset and his tenacity coming off the bench. Because that’s not easy. And the coach is in a situation where he wants Christian to come in and make a difference, and he absolutely makes that difference. And that was really great to see.
“You can understand there can be disappointment by not starting the game, and the only way to respond is to show it on the field. And that’s exactly what he did.”
It would have been easy for Pulisic to brush past that benching, if one wishes to call it that, after Chelsea had clinched advancement to the Super Bowl of world soccer.
Tuchel’s decision not to start Pulisic was rooted in tactical logic: Because Chelsea had the away goal tiebreaker following the first leg, the first priority was to keep Real Madrid from matching it at Stamford Bridge. So Pulisic’s attacking ability was slightly less necessary. Tuchel also expressed the preference for a taller player, 6-foot-2 Kai Havertz, to help cope with set-piece defending that had been a problem on Karim Benzema’s tying goal in the first leg. And, in the event Chelsea yielded a goal and had an emergency need for Pulisic’s skill for creating and finishing goals, he was available on the bench.
Pulisic, though, has not followed the easy road to reach such an elevated position at age 22. He was playing in consequential games against the world’s best players at 17 years old. He nearly pushed an aging, fading U.S. men’s national team to the 2018 World Cup with seven goals and seven assists in 13 qualifying matches while still a teenager. He made the move to Chelsea for a transfer fee of $70.4 million at age 20. Even though he made a statement with his play in those final minutes against Real Madrid, maybe it wasn’t enough to leave it there.
“Oh, I love it. Because I happen to believe that he should start,” Fox Sports lead studio analyst Alexi Lalas told SN. “I said a while ago, I said: He’s too good for this Chelsea team. That’s how good he is. And so I want to see him on the field. And that he has that drive and that intensity and that desire to be successful, that’s what makes all great athletes regardless of nationality. And so that should not be a surprise. That should be welcomed.
“Keep in mind, for Tuchel or whoever his coach is: You should want that. If you’re a player who is satisfied that you’re not playing, I submit that there’s something wrong with you.”
Lalas admires Pulisic’s instinct to attack first upon receiving the ball, something that has dwindled as the sport has become more oriented toward possession and the gradual build of offensive movement.
“His first thought of going forward, that’s reserved for some real elite company and elite teams out there,” Lalas said. “I don’t think there’s a team in the world, if given the opportunity, that wouldn’t want Christian Pulisic. He is, legit, one of the elite talents in the world.”
Chelsea has an abundance of attacking options available to deploy against Manchester City. Most often aligning the team in a 3-4-1-2 formation, Tuchel has available World Cup champion Olivier Giroud, young English talents Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Moroccan veteran Hakim Ziyech. And those are the guys who lately aren’t playing quite as much.
Among the regular starters are England’s Mason Mount and Germans Timo Werner and Havertz, acquired last summer for a combined $146 million. That’s the competition for Pulisic each day in training, each day as Tuchel ponders the best 11 to field against Manchester City.
“I feel as though, when you compare and contrast what he has in his locker as opposed to the other players, I think he has separated himself as the most ruthless and lethal and dangerous type of player,” Brian Dunseth, host of the Counter Attack program on SiriusXM FC, told SN. “That’s no disrespect to anybody else in that position. And I don’t compare him to Mason Mount, who is more of a buildup sort of player. I look at Timo Werner or Ziyech or Callum Hudson-Odoi, and I just watch Christian so comfortable on the ball, with multiple players closing him down and figuring out a solution. I look at Christian and see his positive first touch, running at players every single time.
“I just think he’s such an overall well-rounded player. The only thing I’m concerned about is what I’m sure everybody’s concerned about: just making sure his body can handle the rigors of the amount of games and those little niggles that he gets because he’s such an explosive type of player.”
That’s been the fundamental problem for Pulisic since moving to Chelsea. He has missed a combined 25 games in all competitions over two seasons with injuries to his hamstring, abdominal muscles and foot.
The dismissal of manager Frank Lampard in January also complicated Pulisic’s circumstance. Pulisic had played for Tuchel early in his career at Dortmund, and it was expected that would provide a small advantage in the fight for playing time, but Pulisic wasn’t even an available substitute for two of Tuchel’s early Premier League games.
Not until Pulisic returned in late March from a successful run with the U.S. men’s national team did he begin to be fully incorporated in the Chelsea attack. And that appeared to elevate the Blues, as well.
“He’s one of the most frightening, breathtaking, talented young players I’ve seen for a long time,” CBS Sports analyst Micah Richards told reporters this week on a conference call. “He’s struggled with injuries, but I think now he’s getting a run of games. … And I think he could be the difference. We talk about Chelsea on the counterattack. He can do something individually brilliant. So I think he can have a huge impact on this game if he were to start or if he were to come off the bench.”
That is one way to look at it; it’s just not the way Pulisic would prefer. When he told Tim Howard of NBC Sports, “I want to win this thing,” it was obvious Pulisic did not simply mean he wished to be a member of the team that prevailed.