The previous season, at age 21, Pulisic scored nine Premier League goals and a career-best 11 in all competitions. He electrified audiences with his pace, cunning and ambition.
Those contributions helped justify the $73 million transfer payment in 2019 to German club Borussia Dortmund — the largest fee in U.S. soccer history, by far — and raise hopes of Chelsea returning to trophy contention.
“I understand what it means and how much history it has — how many incredible players have worn it before me,” Pulisic told CBS Sports shortly after receiving the number assignment.
Six months after accepting it, however, Pulisic is having a hard time even getting onto the field.
There are multiple factors: injuries, a dip in quality and a new coach. Thomas Tuchel’s formation preferences have shored up the vulnerable defense but have left Pulisic, a natural winger, competing for fewer available slots in the attack and often out of position.
The Blues are unbeaten in nine straight under Tuchel heading into Thursday’s visit to reigning champion Liverpool. Things are working; why change?
Since Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard on Jan. 26, Pulisic has started once, in an FA Cup match against second-tier Barnsley. He has subbed into four Premier League matches, remained on the bench for another and wasn’t in uniform for two more.
In the UEFA Champions League, Pulisic played the last three minutes against Atlético Madrid. In all, he has played 192 minutes — a little more than two full matches over five weeks.
He has not scored in three months.
Not exactly a 10-worthy season.
Tuchel’s arrival figured to work in Pulisic’s favor. When the Hershey, Pa., native ascended to Dortmund’s first team from the under-19 squad between 2015 and 2017, Tuchel was his coach. Their history, however, hasn’t mattered so much in west London.
The Premier League is a cutthroat circuit. Coaches come and go like subway trains. The responsibility and expectation on players, regardless of jersey number, is heavy. A slight slip in form opens the door to a high-end substitute famished for minutes.
If he stays healthy, Pulisic could roll back into the lineup at any time. Despite the unbeaten streak, Chelsea is not exactly overwhelming opponents with goals: 10 in Tuchel’s nine matches and three multi-goal efforts. And a crowded schedule will require Tuchel to dip deeper into the player pool.
Fans are impatient, however. Many in the United States worry Pulisic’s inactivity will adversely affect his performances with the U.S. national team, which, in the fall, will begin the 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign.
Some have suggested Pulisic should seek a transfer this summer and perhaps return to Germany, where he flourished for four years. He is under contract with Chelsea until the summer of 2024, but if the sides don’t see a future, a move could be in order.
Two weeks ago, Tuchel was ambiguous, saying, although he wants to keep Pulisic next season, “no decision” has been made.
From a U.S. standpoint, the preference is to see Pulisic working himself back into favor for the Premier League’s stretch run.
Even if that were not to happen, Pulisic’s starting point on the talent scale is still higher than most, if not every, compatriot.
The next opportunity for U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter to gauge Pulisic’s status comes late this month in friendlies against Jamaica in Wiener Neustadt, Austria, and Northern Ireland in Belfast. A change of scenery, even for just a week, could make a world of difference.
Berhalter is in regular contact with Pulisic and Chelsea officials. He will have a good idea before camp opens March 22 what to expect.
It has been a while since Pulisic last donned a U.S. jersey. (He has worn No. 10 for the national team for a while.) Because of injuries and the pandemic shutdown, Pulisic has not played for his country since October 2019.
The last time the top European-based players were together was November for two friendlies; Pulisic left training camp to continue rehabbing a hamstring ailment.
More than coaching decisions, those injuries have cut into his opportunities at Chelsea the past 14 months. In 2020, setbacks included a five-month absence to recover from a groin ailment and a two-month hamstring issue, suffered in the FA Cup final at Wembley after he scored. Last month, a calf injury sidelined him a week.
Early this season, the club considered a special training program to avoid long-term injuries.
All of it has left Pulisic with a reputation for being fragile. Some players are just prone to injury. Rose Lavelle, a U.S. breakout star at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, is another example.
With Pulisic, there is another number worth considering. It’s 22.
That’s both his previous uniform designation and his age. It’s a reminder that, while things aren’t perfect at the moment, he has done remarkable things in what is still the infancy of his career.
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