Weekend mornings haven’t been the same since the English Premier League paused its season. The hope is the EPL is back on NBC sometime soon. Until then, NBC Sports Washington is devoting a week of stories to each of the Big 6 clubs in England: Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. Because we miss the Premier League, too.
Our first week begins with a look at surprising Chelsea and Christian Pulisic, the young American trying to find his place on one of the world’s biggest clubs.
Christian Pulisic is back in London now waiting like the rest of us.
In his first season in England, Pulisic flashed some of the promise that at age 21 makes him the future of American soccer. But he is trying to do something no United States soccer player has ever done – succeed at one of the English Premier League’s biggest clubs.
An adductor injury knocked Pulisic from the lineup in January. He appeared in 16 games with 12 starts before getting hurt. He also scored five goals – three of them in a remarkable game against Burnley – and had two assists. Time back home with his family in Hershey, Pa. allowed Pulisic time to heal, he told NBC’s Rebecca Lowe in an Inside the Mind interview last Thursday. But he’s back in the U.K. now waiting for word that training can begin again.
“I’d say I’m fully recovered, ready to go as soon as we get back,” Pulisic said. “I’m really looking forward to that. I was back with the team in training just before this whole thing started.”
That was a frustrating pause to his season before the bigger pause in March thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Chelsea was a surprise before the 2019-20 season was halted. That sounds silly given the Blues won league titles in 2015 and 2017 and have finished outside the top five just twice in the past 16 seasons.
But there was a fragility to Chelsea, which has been hampered by financial penalties, lost its top player (Eden Hazard) and is on a youth movement that includes Pulisic, whom it acquired from German side Borussia Dortmund last summer.
The Blues placed 10th as recently as 2015-16, recovered to win the Premier League the next season and were fifth last year before suffering some summer defections. No one knew what to expect. But in his first year as head coach, Chelsea legend Frank Lampard had his team in fourth place with nine games to go.
There are still nine games to go and no sign yet when the EPL will return as games have in Germany already. Pulisic has a renewed sense of patience. He tried to push through the adductor injury when it originally happened in December and ended up making things worse.
“I wanted to continue to play at that level,” Pulisic told Lowe. “I was feeling confident, feeling great before the injury. That’s why it was really tough going through that. But it’s part of anyone’s career.”
Other Americans have starred in the Premier League. Goalies Tim Howard (Everton) and Brad Friedel (Leicester City) and Casey Keller (Leicester City, Tottenham) had long careers. Field players Clint Dempsey and Brian McBride spent years of their career at Fulham.
But no one – not even Landon Donavan, who starred at a similarly young age but lost interest in playing in Europe and spent the majority of his career back home in MLS – has attempted what Pulisic is doing. His natural hat trick at Burnley in late October just a month after his 21st birthday made him the youngest to ever do that for the club. It’s been around since 1905. No Chelsea player had done it at all since Didier Drogba in 2010.
“I’ll never forget coming home after that and sitting down and looking back on what just happened,” Pulisic said. “I was so proud and being able to talk to my family back home. Just scoring and helping the team win and having a great game, there’s no better feeling.”
Chelsea technically remains alive in the Champions’ League, too – though down 3-0 after a home loss to Bayern Munich in the round of 16 just before the virus halted play across Europe and with a road game to come.
But whether Pulisic gets a chance to force his way back into the lineup this year or must wait until the summer, at best, remains to be seen. There’s no easy way to grade his rookie campaign in England.
“The word will be ‘inconclusive,’” NBC soccer analyst Robbie Mustoe said last month on an edition of the Two Robbies podcast with fellow analyst Robbie Earle. “We have an inclusive report right now. He scored five goals – three of those is in one game. There’s been flashes of his brilliance that has wowed people at Chelsea. I would argue that we didn’t see it enough.”
Hard to dispute. Even Pulisic would agree. He is also entering a critical part of his career. The United States is desperate to qualify for the 2022 World Cup after a disastrous loss last cycle left Pulisic in tears on a field in Trinidad and kept the Americans out. The U.S. Soccer Federation can’t afford another setback and Pulisic is at the center of those efforts.
Meanwhile, he also has to show he can play at a club with Chelsea’s ambitions. All due respect to American greats before him, especially Dempsey and McBride. But Fulham’s stadium, Craven Cottage, on the banks of the River Thames, is a 1.5-mile walk to Chelsea’s home ground at Stamford Bridge and it might as well be 1,000. Their goals are not the same.
Fulham had some nice years in the Premier League with Dempsey, especially, helping them to three top-10 finishes. But it has since slipped a level down to the English Championship League. Pulisic’s aim is so much higher. American soccer hopes for him are so much higher.
“This is Chelsea,” Mustoe said. “This isn’t a mid-table team that can be OK with a technical player doing things now and again. This has to be all the time. We’ve seen it at times, but we’ve got to see more. More personality. And that will come with time and will come with confidence. But it’s been frustrating for him.”
Chelsea also means competition. Pulisic is 21. But he is surrounded by young talent. English midfielder Mason Mount is also 21 and has started 25 games this season. Scottish midfielder Billy Gilmour, just 18, was called up to the big club in February. English forward Callum Hudson-Odoi is 19 and appeared in 17 games. Tammy Abraham looks like Chelsea’s striker of the future with 13 goals at age 22. The team has already signed Ajax midfielder Hakim Ziyech, 26, for next season. Playing time must be earned.
“The Premier League was everything I hoped it’d be and more. The amount of games and everything that goes on, it’s a lot to take in, especially first year,” Pulisic said. “Getting used to it and used to the schedule. There’s pressures there, but I’m enjoying the ride so much. One of the most competitive leagues in the world, if not the best. I’ve learned so much this first year. I’m looking forward to getting back to it.”
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