LONDON – Players tipped, the ball moved into place and Christian Pulisic settled into what has become his usual position for Chelsea these days: a seat.
It was a good seat, to be fair, in the second row of the Chelsea dugout, with a perfect view of Chelsea’s clash with Arsenal. But it was nowhere near where Christian Pulisic wants to be. Not on Sunday, not ever, and definitely not two weeks before the start of his first World Cup.
Pulisic, 24, remains the brightest star on a young U.S. team hoping to make waves at the World Cup in Qatar. But at Chelsea, he is what the Brits call over-the-top: something extra, something nice to have, sure, but not something a club in transition seems to need.
This is a career problem for Pulisic, a Champions League winner who can still, in his brief moments of playing time, change Chelsea’s attack, change play, change results. However, it appears to be out of his hands to solve this problem – Chelsea are considering offloading him to Italy in the January transfer window, and manager Graham Potter, who replaced the sacked Thomas Tuchel in September , currently has much bigger crises. hands
“My focus is on Chelsea,” Potter said last month when asked about players such as Pulisic and others who may be jostling for bigger roles and more consistent game time ahead of the World Cup world “I understand that all players have ambition and want to play for different reasons, for their families, career or World Cup. That’s okay. But my job is to select the right team for any game.”
Potter praised Pulisic’s work in training. The player, who had been outraged at his treatment by Tuchel in a book published this autumn, said he was eager for a “fresh start” with Potter. The manager said you just “have to be prepared.” However, little has changed about his reduced role.
Read more about the 2022 World Cup
The current state, however, is not just a Pulisic problem. It is unclear what his infrequent appearances later this month could mean for his national team, which plays its first match at the World Cup two weeks from Monday. Pulisic has started just three Premier League games for Chelsea this season and just two in the last nine weeks. He has only scored one goal.
This is not what anyone would describe as an ideal situation for a player who sees himself as a difference maker, nor is it the perfect recipe for sharpness ahead of the biggest tournament of his life. But his uncertain status isn’t all that unusual for a U.S. team struggling with more than a few unknowns, either.
At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, for example, Pulisic’s seat was about 20 feet from the one occupied by goalkeeper Matt Turner, the projected American starter in Qatar. Turner has played even less than Pulisic since his summer move to England, and with Aaron Ramsdale entrenched in the starting job and Arsenal top of the Premier League, Turner cannot reasonably expect to be back on the pitch in the league any sooner to arrive in the World Cup.
“It was a risk going from being a starter to a place where I wasn’t guaranteed to be a regular starter, but it felt like a necessary risk that I had to take,” Turner said after a recent (rare ) start in the Europa League.
The list of concerns does not end there. Midfielder Weston McKennie is out for at least two weeks with a thigh injury. Left-back Antonee Robinson missed most of September with an ankle injury and recently hinted that while he is back in the starting line-up at Fulham, he is still not 100 per cent. Defender Sergiño Dest has mostly been a reserve after his move to AC Milan, and Gio Reyna and Timothy Weah have been fragile throughout their careers. But they, at least, are playing meaningful minutes these days.
The concerns are the same on the American side of the Atlantic. Walker Zimmerman, a near-certain starter in the center of the US defense, will have had more than a month between his last competitive game and the start of the World Cup. Defender DeAndre Yedlin is staring at roughly the same void after his Inter Miami side were eliminated early in the Major League Soccer playoffs.
To keep his idle (and healthy) MLS players busy, USA coach Gregg Berhalter recently held a conditioning camp in Texas, an effort to try to maintain some semblance of sharpness ahead of the announcement of his final list on Wednesday. While the pitch may have been helpful, it wasn’t an environment to rival the pressure of a World Cup, which, remember, will be a first-time experience for almost everyone in his young U.S. squad.
Pulisic, then, may be luckier than the rest. He is not injured. He has played in high-stakes matches before. He receives high-level training every week at Chelsea. And Potter hasn’t completely forgotten him – he gave him a start in a Champions League game two weeks ago and rewarded him days later with another in a defeat at Brighton.
In Chelsea’s next game, however, Pulisic returned to the bench. Sunday brought another day spent watching and waiting.
Pulisic spent the first hour of the game crouched with his coat zipped over his chin. By the 60th minute he was already on the touchline, calmly going through a light warm-up, throwing an occasional glance at the game and going up the line to Potter.
The call came in the 78th minute, when Potter offered a quick word in the ear and a sharp pat on the shoulder, and Pulisic sprinted on as a replacement for Mason Mount.
The match, unfortunately, is effectively over. Arsenal, clearly superior all day, had scored the only goal from a corner 15 minutes earlier, and Chelsea, who never looked like a threat to win, meekly went from there. When the final whistle blew, Pulisic stood like a statue, hands on hips, alone near midfield.
He stood there for about 30 seconds, motionless, before walking over to shake the referee’s hand. Then he purposely turned and walked, stone-faced and unbroken, straight down the tunnel. Another 90 minutes of frustration. Another day wasted. Another day closer to Qatar.