American soccer fans have been spoiled this year. Coming off a slow season without too much compelling USMNTer action outside Christian Pulisic’s debut season at Chelsea and the first hints of Gio Reyna’s emergence, this year eight American players have featured in the Champions League group stage, and several more have established themselves as mainstays with their clubs. Weston McKennie is out here scoring for Juventus at the Camp Nou, right in front of his USMNT teammates Sergiño Dest and Konrad de la Fuente. Fabian Johnson assisting for Borussia Mönchengladbach in the German cup, this ain’t. The pool has real top-end depth.
Ironically, all this breaking out was happening while Pulisic himself was sitting on the Chelsea bench. A hamstring injury sustained during the FA Cup final against Arsenal in August had, until recently, cost him playing time and the chance to establish a rhythm. Even if Pulisic’s run at Dortmund and his stellar first year with Chelsea showed he belonged at the level of the Premier League’s elite, establishing oneself as a must-start, essential cog in a top team is a trickier task.
Teams at the highest level are constantly cycling their squads, and even though Pulisic cost a shitload of money and earned the No. 10 shirt, Chelsea also added Hakim Ziyech, Timo Werner, and Kai Havertz in the offseason. None of those dudes play the exact same way as Pulisic, but a full-strength Chelsea still has roughly twice as many high-end attackers as attacking spots. Marquee players are under a different sort of pressure to stay in lineups, and Pulisic only needs to look as far as historically expensive Chelsea bench warmer Kepa Arrizabalaga for an example of how unsparing big clubs can be. Being injured is different than being bad—which is and was Kepa’s problem—but still, Pulisic can’t prove himself without playing time. As Tim Weah’s rise and fall and apparent rise shows, realization of potential is not linear.
Hamstring injuries often linger, and accordingly, Pulisic spent the first three months of the season in limbo. He’d come on as a substitute, appearing to be on the upswing, only to miss a string of games after reaggravating the injury. From the American-minded lens, Pulisic’s fitness troubles were less frustrating than they could’ve been, thanks to all the other USMNT heroics on offer, even though Pulisic is still the gem of his generation. Sergiño Dest, for example, is a madman on the ball and an absolute lock starter for Barcelona every week, but Pulisic has the highest ceiling of this group and a fully realized USMNT has him at its core.
Since returning to consistent health over the past few weeks, Pulisic has erased any doubt: He is utterly essential to Chelsea. His recent performances have not just that he’s shown he belongs, but that he brings an element of danger to his team that nobody else really does. Timo Werner is struggling right now, but Pulisic is more than making up for it even when Frank Lampard continues to play him on the right instead of his preferred left.
After netting his first EPL goal of the season in a 3–1 win against Leeds on December 5, Pulisic started and played 90 minutes in a loss to Wolves 10 days later. His team stunk up the joint, but he was easily Chelsea’s best attacking player in the match. Pulisic played 84 minutes in Chelsea’s 3–0 win against West Ham on Monday and looked dangerous throughout. The stat sheet has the following as an unassisted Tammy Abraham goal, but that undersells Pulisic’s role in doing just about everything to make it happen (credit also due to Mason Mount’s fantastic cross):
To me, this is the good shit. Pulisic has distinguished himself among a highly competitive group, and at this point, the only real concern American fans should have is for his health. If his hamstring holds up, he has clearly shown that he not only belongs on a club like Chelsea but can be one of the best players on a club of that caliber. We all like seeing, say, Tyler Adams log a solid 90 minutes for RB Leipzig, but Pulisic is still the most important player of his class, and it rules to see him once again play like it.