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Christian Pulisic keeps defying expectations. Why does he still have doubters?

Christian Pulisic
May 28, 2018; Chester, PA, USA; United States midfielder Christian Pulisic (10) in action against Bolivia during an international friendly men's soccer match at Talen Energy Stadium. (Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports)

How high is the ceiling for American midfielder Christian Pulisic?

Financially speaking, it’s robustly high – and maybe even still growing – after he signed a deal last Wednesday morning worth $73 million to join English Premier League giant Chelsea, shattering the record for the most expensive transfer fee paid for an American player.

Chelsea’s first move after acquiring the young stud from Hershey, Pa., was to loan him back to his now-former club, Borussia Dortmund, where he will complete the current Bundesliga season and Champions League campaign.

Pulisic may not wear Chelsea’s iconic blue kit until preseason starts next summer, but fans are already salivating about seeing him at Stamford Bridge competing in what is arguably the toughest and most prestigious league in world soccer.

But there’s also a fair amount of intrigue – both positive and negative – about Chelsea dumping more than it originally paid for Eden Hazard (and others) on an American wunderkind who isn’t even able to legally drink in his home country.

If anything, this transfer has emboldened U.S. Soccer supporters hopeful about the national team’s future ever since Pulisic left home and signed a contract with Borussia Dortmund at 16.

 

Detractors are clearly less starry-eyed – perusing the comment section of a Facebook post published by Eurosport asking whether Pulisic was a bargain or a waste of money will illustrate this easily enough.

Meanwhile, Chelsea coach Maurizio Sarri has spoken positively of Pulisic, though he admitted to BBC radio that he had no idea Blues management was planning on purchasing the player.

“I didn’t know anything about [Chelsea signing] Christian Pulisic,” Sarri said. “The club asked my opinion about him one month ago and my opinion was positive.”

Sarri also rightfully said he’s focused on this season, not the next when Pulisic arrives. It remains to be seen how Pulisic will acquiesce to life at Stamford Bridge or Sarri’s tactics, but there’s hardly anything on the player’s résumé with which the Italian coach can object. 

Pulisic has fought for playing time and emerged as a starter on one of the fiercest teams in Europe, sparring daily the last three years with the likes of Marco Reus, Shinji Kagawa and Mario Goetze. And though his playing time has declined this season thanks to the arrival of Jadon Sancho, his value hasn’t decreased.

He has recorded 15 goals and 24 assists in 131 appearances for Dortmund, and is one of just seven American players to score in Champions League. He is the youngest player to ever captain the United States men’s national team and has scored nine times in 23 international matches.

He is now, deservedly, the most expensive soccer player with an American passport and he plays as though he has no other purpose than to play well. He is better than Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and, yes, even Landon Donovan.

There is of course one particular frontier Pulisic has yet to conquer: To play and score in a World Cup, as the aforementioned trio of players has done.

 

Pulisic has been exceeding expectations ever since he burst on the scene as a teen, though his involvement in a qualifying campaign that fell short of reaching last summer’s World Cup in Russia serves as his lone low point.

He’s not the first gifted player on a capable national team to miss out on the World Cup, though a feature in the The Ringer last June discussing the national team’s failures painted an enduring image: Pulisic sulking, with full kit on, beneath a shower head at Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, on the October night a 2-1 U.S. loss to Trinidad and Tobago and a slew of other results across CONCACAF disqualified the Americans from competing in Russia.

On the flipside, qualification for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar hasn’t started and the U.S. will host the 2026 edition of the tournament with Mexico and Canada.

Pulisic can’t put his stamp on a World Cup for at least three years. Maybe once he gets there he’ll turn the U.S. into a legitimate contender – as former coach Bruce Arena opined last year.

Winning a World Cup is more in line with the career path of a player who is the most-talked about transaction of the January Transfer Window and scores regularly for a Champions League title contender. In a sense, reaching a World Cup is old school for Pulisic. It’s important – but it’s been done.

“I just want every USA soccer fan reading this to understand, that no matter what decisions are made over these next couple of years … no matter what changes are implemented … no matter who the coach is, or what the roster looks like: I’m going to be obsessed with winning,” Pulisic wrote in a post for the Players Tribune.  “And I’m going to be obsessed with doing my part to help U.S. Soccer get over the hump.”

Pulisic has continued to make good on that promise and has a real chance to build on it by doing something else that no American has done: Play in and win the Champions League final. By this time next year, he’ll be at Chelsea, hoping to do the same but with an EPL title also on the line.

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