Christian Pulisic's move to Chelsea full of both risk and reward for the United States international
Christian Pulisic's move to Chelsea is awash in mixed emotions.
First, in case you've been away from the hyperconnected world, here are the particulars. Chelsea will pay Bundesliga leaders Borussia Dortmund a transfer fee of €64 million ($73.1m) for the U.S. international, more than triple the previous record for a U.S. player. That mark was set by defender John Brooks when he moved from Hertha to Wolfsburg prior to the 2017-18 season for a reported $22 million. It's also the third-highest fee ever paid by Chelsea, a club that isn't exactly shy when it comes to spending big on players. While the transfer is complete, Pulisic will remain with BVB on loan for the duration of the current campaign as Dortmund pursues a Bundesliga title.
So will the U.S. national team's resident Ferrari perform for his new club in a manner consistent with his price tag? Will he break down at regular intervals like he has at times this season? Or will he be another shiny toy for Chelsea to show off in its garage but rarely let out into the street? As is often the case with high-profile transfers, the move is fraught with risk, but also possible rewards.
The conflicting emotions begin with Pulisic's choice of club. Stylistically, there does seem to be a fit with manager Maurizio Sarri, who likes his teams to attack quickly in transition and extensively utilize the wings. Eden Hazard has thrived in such a system. Given Pulisic's technique, speed on the ball and familiarity with the position from his time at Dortmund, that would seem to be right in his sweet spot.
But Chelsea isn't exactly a club where patience with managers or young players is a prized virtue. If the club struggles to any great degree under Sarri, you can bet the axe will fall on him first, and who knows what whims will direct Roman Abramovich's next choice of manager.
Chelsea certainly isn't a place where young players are nurtured and brought through the system either. Just ask Kevin De Bruyne or Mohamed Salah, both of whom moved on to way bigger and better things after getting little in the way of playing time at Stamford Bridge. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Callum Hudson-Odoi are more recent examples of young players finding it difficult to break through on a consistent basis. There have even been reports that Hudson-Odoi has drawn interest from Bayern Munich, who at one stage were also interested in Pulisic, though as of the moment the Blues have reportedly rejected an offer of €20m for the England youth international.
Even if Chelsea was a club that brought along young players, cracking the team's lineup figures to be a challenge for Pulisic. Much of the focus lately has been on whether Hazard will stick around, but players like Willian and Pedro figure to provide some competition as well, even if both are now north of their 30th birthday. That assumes, of course, that both will still be around next season. Given that both players' contracts are up in 2020, Chelsea may opt to cash in this summer on at least one of them, which could create more of an opening for the U.S. international.
The sheer heft of Pulisic's transfer fee -- along with the marketing opportunities his nationality entails -- will see him get his chances, but it will be his performances that will determine whether he can stay in the lineup.
That is far from a sure thing as Pulisic hasn't even been able to achieve that this season with Dortmund, where 18-year-old Jadon Sancho has taken over the American's place in the BVB lineup. Some of that has been injury-induced, but Sancho has shown he is more than deserving of his spot in the starting XI, having produced seven goals and nine assists. And how much playing time will Dortmund be willing to invest in Pulisic in the second half of the season given the fact that he'll be leaving in five months? Everything else being equal, Sancho seems the more likely candidate to be playing, and makes Pulisic's decision to remain there for the rest of this season a bit puzzling.
All of this is likely to leave U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter concerned about his most prized player. Granted, Pulisic's spot in the U.S. lineup remains secure, but from a national team perspective it is his continued development that is most important here. It is quite possible that could be stifled at Chelsea.
Yet in the face of all of these challenges, there is tremendous upside for Pulisic beyond a more robust bank account. Sure, the Hershey, Pennsylvania, native has received deserved plaudits for what he has achieved so far, but at least at club level he remains in many ways a prospect who has shown more in terms of potential than production. To succeed at a club the size of Chelsea, Pulisic will need to up his game another level or two. He has been hyped as this transformative U.S. star. As good as he's been, he's not there yet. If he is to reach that stratosphere, he will have to overcome the obstacles put in front of him and embrace the pressure placed on him. That is what the world's best players do.
If Pulisic does, the payoff could be huge -- not just for him, but for American players. There has been talk that his transfer fee raises the profile of U.S. performers. While that is true to a degree, Pulisic's play, not his price tag, will determine how much the collective boat of American players gets raised.
For now, this move is about what it means for Pulisic and by extension the U.S. national team. The next step in his career has been taken. The coming months will reveal if he can seize this new opportunity.