The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Christian Pulisic transfer to Chelsea is a historic breakthrough for U.S. soccer

Christian Pulisic splits two Fortuna Duesseldorf players during Bundesliga match Dec. 18. (Friedemann Vogel/EPA-EFE)

American soccer has been waiting a long time for this — a young attacking player with breathtaking ability joining an elite European club for an absurd amount of cash and subsequently earning a global headline as a new year dawned.

For some 25 years, U.S. players have been carving a modest presence overseas. Many have been goalkeepers and defensive types. Some have arrived with scoring portfolios forged in MLS. Several were dual nationals, born and trained abroad.

Intra-European transfers involving king’s ransoms and glamorous suitors were reserved for the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar; for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona; for Brazilians and Argentines and Spaniards.

Certainly not for Americans.

Christian Pulisic, 20, busted that mold Wednesday when Premier League titan Chelsea purchased him from German leader Borussia Dortmund for $73 million. (That doesn’t include the multimillions Chelsea will provide him in salary.)

Pulisic on record transfer to Chelsea: 'It’s a privilege'

The transfer fee was more than three times the previous record for a U.S. player — in May 2017, John Brooks, a defender, jumped from one middling German club to another without fanfare — and around the 25th largest in the sport’s history.

Pulisic will remain with Dortmund through the end of the season, then in August become the first high-profile American, not including goalkeepers, to suit up for an English heavyweight since, well, forever.

Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey did score goals for Fulham, but the Cottagers operate in the shadows of London brethren. (Dempsey also had a seven-goal campaign with Tottenham before returning to MLS.) Claudio Reyna and DaMarcus Beasley liked the ball at their feet. John Harkes played for trophies at Wembley. Tim Howard, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel were world-class goalkeepers.

Pulisic has always been different. His electric skill set — initiated in Hershey, Pa., by parents who played at George Mason University and took him abroad in early 2015 — belies the reputation of Americans being hard workers, supporting actors and little else.

Amid gains in the sport since the late 1980s, the United States has developed few creative male prospects suited for the world’s brightest stages. (Where have you gone, Freddy Adu?)

In terms of dynamic attackers, the closest comparison to Pulisic was Landon Donovan. Their acceleration and confidence with the ball are eerily similar.

Donovan, however, spent the bulk of his decorated career in San Jose and Los Angeles before retiring last year, never making a European breakthrough despite opportunity in Germany and England.

As a teenager, Pulisic was starting regularly in the Bundesliga, which sits in the top tier of European circuits with the Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, Italy’s Serie A and France’s Ligue 1. Beyond domestic competition, Dortmund typically qualifies for the UEFA Champions League, which brings together clubs from across the continent.

Given his high-level experience at such a young age, Pulisic was one of the top five transfer targets this winter, regardless of nationality. Liverpool — guided by his former Dortmund mentor, Juergen Klopp — also reportedly took interest.

The appeal of Pulisic’s capacity and age overshadowed his lessening role at first-place Dortmund this season. Bumped from the lineup by English teenager Jadon Sancho, Pulisic has appeared in 11 of 17 league matches, starting five and scoring once. He has continued to start in the Champions League.

Given Pulisic’s profile and cost, Chelsea is almost sure of thrusting him into the lineup next summer. The Russian-owned Blues won the Premier League in 2014-15 and 2016-17 but finished fifth last year and are fourth this season, 11 points back of front-running Liverpool entering Wednesday’s matches.

Beyond Pulisic’s contributions on the field, Chelsea is, no doubt, counting on a marketing bump in the United States. Through tours and TV exposure, European clubs have made great strides in recent years appealing to U.S. audiences. Chelsea, though, is not nearly as popular here as the likes of Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Thanks to Pulisic, Dortmund might have a larger following, as well.

Given the historical ties between England and the United States — and that NBC Sports' presentation of the Premier League is akin to NFL coverage — Chelsea is eyeing an uptick in exposure and jersey sales.

NBC is certainly thrilled about building coverage around an exciting U.S. player. (Two defenders and a defensive midfielder comprise the current U.S. contingent in the Premier League.)

Pulisic’s mega-move is also a victory for U.S. men’s soccer, which, in the wake of the 2018 World Cup qualifying fiasco, has fallen off the sports radar and begun major renovations under new coach Gregg Berhalter.

Before the Chelsea transfer, Pulisic was already the centerpiece of the program. Wearing Chelsea colors and competing on the sport’s most popular circuit, he will soon inherit a role no American has ever taken.