Hoping to be the U.S. man of the hour, Christian Pulisic heads to the World Cup a man of few minutes.
He is the first American to play in and win a Champions League final and he was already a three-time U.S. Soccer Federation player of the year before turning 24 in September, but Pulisic will go to Qatar coming off an unsatisfying and unsettled club season. He’s started just five of Chelsea’s 22 games going into this weekend’s pre-tournament finale, playing a full match just once.
“It’s always when I come to the national team, it’s: 'How are things at Chelsea? How — what’s this, what’s that?” Pulisic said last winter while in the U.S., “and, yeah, it’s tough. It’s tough. It’s definitely played a lot on me, and mentally it’s been difficult at times.”
Pulisic has 21 goals in 52 games for the U.S., already tied for seventh on an American career scoring list led by Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey with 57 each.
Yet, the World Cup has been lacking. The lasting image of the 2017 loss at Trinidad was of Pulisic crouched, a hand covering his face.
“It’s crazy to think that he’s still just a 23-year-old young man,” Donovan said this fall. “Most people at 23 are trying to figure out their life and he is going to have hopes and pressure of a nation on him.”
Pulisic's agency has limited one-on-one interviews for much of his career. He candidly discussed feeling distress in a book published by Rizzoli on Oct. 11, “ Pulisic: My Journey So Far,” a series of conversations with Daniel Melamud. A key period was in the winter of 2020-21, when C helsea manager Frank Lampard was fired and replaced by Thomas Tuchel.
“I was battling depression, and it was a very tough period that saw me hit rock bottom in February of 2021 and have to reach out to get professional help,” Pulisic wrote. “Going to a therapist is not something that anyone should be ashamed of. It’s important to be able to speak to someone.”
Pulisic struggled for playing time under Tuchel, who gave him his Bundesliga debut for Borussia Dortmund in January 2016 at 17 years, 133 days. Pulisic criticized Tuchel for not starting him the second leg of the 2021 Champions League semifinal against Real Madrid, especially after scoring in the first leg.
“I honestly was dumbfounded and very disappointed,” Pulisic wrote. “I thought that I’d earned a start and, most importantly, he had assured me previously I was going to start.”
Later that month, Pulisic entered the Champions League final in the 66th minute and celebrated Chelsea’s 1-0 win over Manchester City at Portugal’s Estádio do Dragão in a U.S. Soccer Federation hoodie, which was worn to the match by his father.
Pulisic’s attire also drew attention last November, when he scored five minutes after entering against Mexico in a World Cup qualifier. Pulisic ran to the endline and pulled up his jersey to show a T-shirt with “Man in the mirror” scribbled in dark ink. Earlier in the week, El Tri goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa was quoted as saying: ’Mexico is the mirror in which the United States wants to see itself.'"
Pulisic left it for teammates to explain.
“Mexico was talking a lot of smack. To shut them up, we have to continue to win games, continue to beat them,” Tim Weah said.
Used at Chelsea on both flanks and central midfield, and even at wingback, Pulisic has been primarily on the left side of the attack with the U.S,
“I’m a guy that bets on Christian just because I’ve seen it before,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. “He is not counted on in a way that he’d like to, and he gets on the field and he proves everyone wrong and he ends up playing. I mean that’s what he’s been doing. So I tend to believe that’s going to happen. And I think his mind is in a good spot and I think he’s going to fight for it because that’s the type of guy he is.”
He totaled just 571 minutes for Chelsea this season under Tuchel and Graham Potter entering the weekend. After getting just eight minutes in the Champions League group stage finale against Dinamo Zagreb and 13 in last weekend’s north London derby vs. Arsenal, he started in Wednesday’s League Cup loss at Manchester City, his first full match for the Blues since May.
“If he’s only played 10 or 12 minutes a game over the next four weeks, there’s just a sharpness issue,” Donovan said in mid-October. “But also just physically, his body is not as fit as it can be, and so that will be a challenge. Fortunately, he is a guy who over the course of his career showed that he is extremely fit, can run and run and run, so he should be OK.”
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Ronald Blum, The Associated Press