Photo: Chelsea Football Club/Getty Images
One of the biggest reasons America’s sports fans have never quite embraced men’s soccer is that our national team has always lacked a superstar. Then, three years ago, Christian Pulisic emerged. With his coltish frame, boyband looks, wizard-like ability to weave past defenders, and oh-so-American bio (the Hershey, Pennsylvania, native has a tattoo of a bald eagle, and his dad once coached an indoor soccer team called the Detroit Ignition), he would be our savior.
In 2016, at age 17, Pulisic made his debut at Borussia Dortmund, a perennial contender in Germany’s top club league, the Bundesliga. He quickly became a mainstay for both Dortmund (establishing himself as one of the best teenagers in Europe) and the U.S. Men’s National Team (he’s the youngest captain in team history). And while the wunderkind midfielder was unable to drag Team USA through qualification for the 2018 FIFA World Cup, he’s continuing his rise with a move to the world’s most competitive league, the English Premiership. In January, the posh London club Chelsea spent $73 million to acquire Pulisic—more than three times the previous record for an American player—and on August 11 he’s set to make his debut, against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Americans have found success in England before—Clint Dempsey is the all-time leading scorer for Fulham F.C.—but none has arrived with so much pressure. “The stakes couldn’t be higher,” says Roger Bennett, cohost of the popular soccer podcast and NBC show The Men in Blazers. “He would become the first American to succeed at a true European superpower of a club, and his success would legitimize the tactical ability of the American player at the elite level.” If he fails, the credibility of American players at Europe’s top clubs could be set back years.
If that’s not enough, Pulisic is joining a club in flux. Chelsea’s squad is aging and unable to make other upgrades thanks to a FIFA-imposed transfer ban, and both manager Maurizio Sarri and superstar winger Eden Hazard moved on in June (to Juventus and Real Madrid, respectively). Hazard’s exit could open a starting slot for Pulisic, but the uncertain situation, Bennett says, is “not an ideal reality to make the instant impact expected with that price tag.”
But if he can, the 39 million Americans who watched the Premier League on NBC Sports last season will have something new to root for: a homegrown superstar.