Which direction is Christian Pulisic going in? For most of his career, it was a question that preoccupied opposition defenders; more recently, it is one Pulisic has perhaps begun to ask himself. Pulisic is 23 years old, a player of rare poise and skill, by common consent the greatest male footballer to come out of the United States. Back home his face is used to sell energy drinks, computer games, burritos and peanut butter chocolates. The path to stardom has been blazed and beaten with an inexorable momentum. Now he’s here, a Champions League winner at one of the biggest clubs in the world. And yet.
Pulisic has started only 12 league games this season. A few days before this interview his father, Mark, went on Twitter to express – and then quickly retract – his disappointment at his son’s treatment at Chelsea. The FA Cup semi-final, the Club World Cup final, the Champions League second leg against Real Madrid: Pulisic was left on the bench each time. “The sad thing is he loves this club, teammates, and London,” Pulisic senior wrote. “Puts his heart and soul into being a pro. Onwards and upwards my boy … big six months ahead.”
Naturally, the tweet set off all kinds of rumours and suspicions, mutters and grumbles. Alas, when the Guardian attempts to ask Pulisic about it, the interview is swiftly brought to a halt. Before that, however, he is both philosophical and commendably frank about his lack of opportunities this season. Obviously he wishes he could have played a little more. He admits that he has been played “all over the place” this season under Thomas Tuchel. But he’s still on board, still fighting. After all, there’s a Cup final to be played, and precious little room for distractions.
First, the big question: is he still happy at Chelsea? “Yeah. Of course, I want to be on the pitch. I enjoy this club a lot. I’m hoping that I can get more opportunities.” How does he win back a regular place? “Do the absolute best I can in training, train hard and show him [Tuchel] on a daily basis that I’m ready to play. And then of course on the pitch, I have to make an impact.”
Chelsea’s trip to Elland Road on Wednesday night offered a further reminder of Pulisic’s value. While Chelsea built another attack early in the second half, Pulisic actually took a couple of steps away from the Leeds goal, finding a little lacuna of space amid the retreating defence. Mason Mount’s flick was exquisite; Pulisic’s finish deadly; the points secured.
Curiously, most of his eight goals this season have been late: the 64th minute on average. When the game is approaching its pivotal moment, when limbs and minds are beginning to tire, that’s when Pulisic does his best work. It is why, even if he is unlikely to start at Wembley, he still has the capacity to leave his mark.
There is a theory that Pulisic suffers a little from his versatility, the sheer breadth of his skillset. Timo Werner is quicker, Mason Mount a better passer, Hakim Ziyech a better crosser, Kai Havertz a better finisher and more potent aerial threat. Perhaps this explains why Pulisic has been shunted around so often, from wing-back to No 10 to striker. Equally, he is clear on his best role. “I’m comfortable in a more attacking role, for sure,” he says. “Anywhere as a left-winger, on the left side, is where I feel most comfortable. I think there’s been a lot of change this season.”
That change – on and off the pitch – may help to explain Chelsea’s curiously intermittent form this season, one in which the early aspirations of a title challenge quickly evaporated. Champions League football has been all but secured for another season and yet for all their cup success – wins in the Super Cup and Club World Cup, and now a second domestic cup final – it feels an appropriate moment to ask Pulisic whether this is the season that got away.
He disagrees. “Overall, we accomplished a lot,” he says. “We put up a big fight in the Champions League. The Carabao Cup final, we put up an impressive performance [a defeat on penalties to Liverpool]. And now we have a chance in the FA Cup final. Win this, and I think we can say it’s been a pretty successful season.”
There are prospective new owners at Stamford Bridge and a summer of upheaval in prospect. For Pulisic there are probably some honest conversations to be had, tough decisions to be made. But all of that can wait. Right now, the only direction Pulisic is heading is towards Wembley, and a chance to add another silver lining to an expanding body of work.
Join Jonathan Liew on 24 May as he leads a panel with Andy Cole and more to discuss the role Black British footballers have played both on and off the pitch. Book a ticket here.