The Fairfax ties were a small, pleasant distraction in his complicated life. There is a lot on his agenda here, too. But 10 days with his American chums — first in the Washington area, then in Toronto for Nations League matches — are a respite from the elevated expectations and searing scrutiny that have shadowed him in London since Chelsea purchased him in January for $73 million, by far the largest transfer fee for a U.S. player.
The transition has not been seamless. Pulisic, a Hershey, Pa., native who turned 21 three weeks ago, has started some matches, subbed into others, sat on the bench a few times and did not pull on a uniform for a Champions League affair last week.
The inconsistent playing time has raised questions about the club’s spending wisdom. The public reaction also has illuminated the nature of international soccer’s cutthroat culture and the demand for instant returns.
“What did anybody expect, you know?” said Michael Bradley, a U.S. national team midfielder. “People thought he was going to walk in and play 90 minutes every single game? That’s not how it works. He is going to move himself along in the right ways. It’s not gone exactly how he would have hoped or envisioned so far, but that’s all part of it.”
On Wednesday, Pulisic did not want to discuss his Chelsea status, saying the national team “is really all that’s on my mind right now.”
Three days earlier, though, he told European-based reporters: “Obviously, I haven’t been getting as many minutes as I would like. I will just keep going, keep pushing. I know my time’s going to come.”
Since a promising preseason, Pulisic has slipped on the depth chart. Aside from veterans Willian and Pedro, he is battling Mason Mount, 20, and Callum Hudson-Odoi, 18, for assignments on the flanks.
Those at the heart of the matter are preaching patience.
“He has just turned 21,” Chelsea Manager Frank Lampard said last week. “So if anyone is getting too excited about this [playing time], they should calm down, frankly.”
There is no ignoring the buzz around Pulisic. For years, many U.S. players have made their way to the sport’s most famous league, but none came with his skill set and attacking capacity.
Given the mind-blowing transfer fee and Pulisic’s teenage success in Germany at Borussia Dortmund, expectations have tailed him like a speedy defender.
As Pulisic settles into Chelsea, U.S. officials say they understand the challenges.
“He is a player we believe in,” national team coach Gregg Berhalter said. “We’re patient. We know things take time. We know sometimes adapting to different leagues takes time as well. We are patient with this process. If he has a good process in place — which we believe he does — we think his quality will come through.”
With a break in the Premier League schedule, Pulisic is with the U.S. squad for matches against Cuba on Friday at Audi Field and Canada on Tuesday in Toronto. He arrived in Washington on Monday for workouts at the same complex off Route 123 where his father, Mark, was a potent forward between 1986 and 1989 and his mother, Kelley, was a starting defender from 1989 to 1992.
Both are planning to attend Friday’s match, he said.
There is pressure here, too — pressure to lead the United States to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar after the program’s colossal failure to quality for the 2018 competition in Russia. Pulisic was part of that effort as well, and while he was not among the main culprits, he took it hard.
When the next qualifying cycle begins a year from now, Pulisic will grasp a greater leadership role.
However, “I don’t want to put it all on myself,” he said. “I see a lot of good things here. We’re going to go in a confident bunch of guys.”
Pulisic is no longer the kid in camp. Philadelphia Union midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 18, is new to the senior group.
“He is younger than me, right?” Pulisic asked reporters before Wednesday’s practice. “I don’t see myself as young anymore.”
He does not see himself languishing on the Chelsea bench, either. “I’ve just got to keep pushing and earn my spot,” he said recently.
Berhalter would love to see his prized player logging 90 minutes every weekend in England, experience that would carry over to the national team. The reality, though, calls for a slower timetable.
“All of us, we want to rush things sometimes, myself included,” Berhalter said, “but this is the case where he is quality and his time will come.”
United States vs. Cuba
What: Nations League, group stage.
TV: Fox Sports 1, UniMas.