In the span of a few days, we were all treated to the full Christian Pulisic spectrum. One day, he's scoring a banger (and nearly two) for Chelsea against Manchester City. The next, he's being mentioned in the same breath, by his manager, as Raheem Sterling, Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane. The next, he's left nursing what's deemed to be a minor muscular injury.
Such is the territory that comes with Pulisic: he's an electrifying 21-year-old American talent with clear skill, tantalizing potential and what's become a worrisome red flag.
The injury, suffered in Sunday's FA Cup quarterfinal win vs. Leicester City, may turn out to be nothing, and Chelsea manager Frank Lampard did indicate pulling Pulisic from the match at the second-half water break was a precautionary move.
"Christian felt some tightness in his calf during the second drinks break so we took him off straightaway," Lampard said. "We will see the extent of that over the next couple of days, but hopefully that won’t be anything serious."
Given that Pulisic was just sidelined for five months, between an adductor injury suffered on New Year's Day and the pandemic that shut down the Premier League for 100 days, it's clear to understand why Chelsea would take the cautious approach. After all, it was only a day earlier that he was being compared to three of the best wide players in England, and with the schedule congestion brought about by the delayed completion of the season, every player is on high alert for muscle injuries.
“I think he can become a really big player,” Lampard told NBC's ProSoccerTalk. “When you look at his age, because he broke through at such a young age in Germany, and he moves to us and people, their expectations rise. We have to take his age into consideration but there’s no doubting the quality. We can see that. He’s very keen to improve and to work, and he’s particularly hungry at the minute because he missed some time with his injury.
“If he wants to learn, and he does, then on the training pitch and how he sees the game and if he looks around him and sees the players around him that have made that sort of a jump. He has the ability of the Raheem Sterlings who are producing numbers from wide areas, the Mo Salahs and (Sadio) Manes. It’s important he understands the work that needs to be done to do that because he definitely has the talent to do that. He needs to try and get to that level. I’m delighted to have him at the minute. He works hard every day and he has to set his sights as high as he possibly can.”
Lampard's comparisons are lofty, but they're not that crazy when you look at where each player was in his age-21 season. Pulisic's has so far yielded a decent eight-goal, six-assist haul in 26 games in all competitions, including a hat trick vs. Burnley and his man-of-the-match performance against Man City on Thursday, which helped Liverpool (and his former manager) Jurgen Klopp finish off their Premier League title.
He arrived at the club with the weight of expectations that come with a $73 million transfer fee all while a club icon, Eden Hazard, was departing. Filling those shoes immediately was never going to be a fair ask for a youngster taking his first steps in the Premier League, but for a while, it seemed like the chances of that happening eventually were not all that great. Injuries and team selection hampered his ability to really string together consistent performances, and the Jan. 1 injury dragged out for way longer than anyone anticipated. Combine that with the other options at Lampard's disposal, and the outlook seemed a little bleak.
Since the restart, though, Pulisic has been a force, meeting the expectations and excelling with his new opportunity. It started with his impact off the bench against Aston Villa in the first match back, a catalyst of a goal in a needed victory in the race for the top four.
In arguably the toughest match left on the schedule (yes, Liverpool at Anfield remains, but with the title sewn up, you'd forgive Liverpool for being at less than 100%), he produced his best performance in a blue shirt yet, and that's taking his aforementioned hat trick into account. He scored one goal, should have had at least one more and was oozing confidence, showing a fearless nature in taking on Man City defenders. His 60-yard run-and-score after Benjamin Mendy and Ilkay Gundogan's midfield mix-up was that of a player looking to make the game his and not just passively trying to perform.
"You never know, things can happen," Pulisic said after the match. "It was a little mix-up on their part obviously, and I just did my best to take advantage of it. I'm happy I was clinical enough to get the goal there.
"That's normally where I want to go with my right foot, just kind of open up and see what the keeper does. I saw I had some space there, so I was able to slide it in nicely."
Pulisic nearly had a second, in similar, breakaway fashion, only to have Kyle Walker clear his shot off the line at the last instant. With his momentum taking him to the right, he didn't get full power on his angled shot toward an empty net, but again, his threat of pace and a nose for goal were on full display.
Against Leicester, before he was taken off in the 72nd minute, he was dangerous again, forcing Kasper Schmeichel into a difficult save and having the look of a player who is locked in. If news of Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner's pending arrivals were a test of Pulisic's resolve, then he's passing with authority.
Given the run of form he's on, it would be a shame it if were derailed by another injury snag. Pulisic missed handfuls of games in three-plus seasons with Dortmund through a series of small, mostly muscular injuries, and he's missed another 13 for Chelsea this season so far. There's enough of a sample size to be concerned about a bigger-picture trend. For Pulisic's sake, the hope is that any missed time as a result of this calf tightness is minimal. Chelsea has seven more league games and at least two other cup matches to go (FA Cup semifinal vs. Manchester United, Champions League last-16 second leg vs. Bayern Munich), and as he has shown in his last three games, when the Christian Pulisic Experience is limited to on-field exploits, the results can be quite extraordinary.
Beyond Pulisic's latest, the Bundesliga completed its season, American coaches are making waves overseas and a talented young prospect will be remaining at Barcelona for at least two more years. Here's what stood out from Americans abroad over a packed weekend:
Sargent staves off relegation–for now
It'd be a stretch to say that Josh Sargent helped Werder Bremen stave off relegation on the Bundesliga's final day, as his side was already leading Cologne 3-0 when he came on at halftime on Saturday. The 20-year-old forward did put the finishing touches on the 6-1 rout, though, with a lovely dinked goal, which caps his first full season as a first-team player with a nice bookend.
A vital playoff remains in the cards, with the win allowing Werder Bremen to leapfrog Fortuna Dusseldorf (sorry, Alfredo Morales and the on-loan Zack Steffen) out of the automatic drop zone and into the relegation playoff place. A two-legged tie against 2. Bundesliga third-place finisher Heidenheim (July 2 and 6) is all that stands between Sargent and another season in the Bundesliga.
And speaking of Bundesliga promotion/relegation, how about a shout for Stuttgart and its manager Pellegrino Matarazzo, the New Jersey-born coach who steered his club back to the top flight with a second-place finish in the second tier. American coaches in major European leagues are still rarities, and Matarazzo will join an esteemed group after his feat this season.
More Bundesliga loose ends
The Bundesliga season's completion also means the end of the road for a number of U.S. internationals, at least for another couple of months.
A third-place finish puts Tyler Adams's RB Leipzig back in the Champions League, while Gio Reyna's second-place Dortmund will be there as well. It stands to reason that Reyna will have an increased role next season after showing glimpses of his ability following his promotion to the first team this past winter. Sporting director Michael Zorc has already indicated that a new contract will be completed once he turns 18.
John Brooks and Wolfsburg were thrashed by champion Bayern Munich, 4-0, in the finale, but they still carved out a place in the Europa League qualifying rounds by virtue of their seventh-place finish. Perhaps 19-year-old forward Ulysses Llanez, who never made his first-team debut despite multiple times on the bench, will play a more significant role for the club next season.
Below that, Schalke was put out of its misery after closing the season on a 16-game (nearly half the season!) winless streak. Weston McKennie & Co. tumbled to a 12th-place finish, and the pressure is fully on German-American manager David Wagner after the dismal conclusion to the season. McKennie scored two of Schalke's five goals in the nine games after the restart.
Marsch, Salzburg do the double
Jesse Marsch enjoyed plenty of success and new frontiers in his first season at the helm of RB Salzburg in Austria and capped his year with a domestic cup-league double. His side earned tons of respect in the Champions League group stage, where it went toe-to-toe with Liverpool and Napoli and eventually wound up third in the group. Marsch, the first American to coach and win a game in the competition, earned plaudits at the time from Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp, who said, “I couldn't have more respect for what Salzburg are doing here, the way they play football. Massive respect for Jesse and what they did.”
Salzburg lost Erling Haaland (Dortmund) and Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) midseason. and yet Marsch inspired his club to rally to two pieces of silverware, first the Austrian Cup, won in the club's first game back after the shutdown, and then the league, which was clinched on Sunday. No matter if Salzburg has become what Bayern Munich is to the Bundesliga, what Juventus is to Serie A and what PSG is to Ligue 1. The club's seventh straight league title was hard-earned and came at the direction of the 46-year-old Marsch, whose résumé strengthens even more after his immediate success.
De la Fuente re-signs with Barcelona
The American at La Masia will be sticking around for longer. Konrad de La Fuente signed a two-year extension Sunday to stay at Barcelona through 2022, something that didn't seem like a certainty a few months ago. A move to Hertha Berlin was being touted for de la Fuente, the 18-year-old Miami-born forward who has been in Barcelona's youth system since he was 12. Instead, he's extending his stay, full with a $56.2 million release clause while he's with Barcelona's second-tier team, Barcelona B–which increases to $112.4 million if he makes the first team.
A Camp Nou debut alongside Lionel Messi is not imminent–though Barcelona is not hesitant to promote young talent if it's ready, such as 17-year-old Ansu Fati. Nevertheless, de la Fuente, who was one of the youngest U.S. players in the U-20 World Cup last year, is a name worth keeping in the back of the mind. He speaks with plenty of ambition and confidence, telling Sports Illustrated last November that the U.S. had what it took to win the U-20 World Cup despite its quarterfinal finish and that his long-term goals are to become the world's best player and to win a senior World Cup with the USA. No big deal. In the meantime, his new contract buys him two more years to take the next step with his club.
"It has always been my dream to play for the first team, and that is why I want to stay here-to try to achieve it," de la Fuente said.
Matt Miazga, instigator
U.S. center back Matt Miazga can add "slapped a player in the face" to his previous hits of "grabbed an opponent's junk" and "made fun of Mexico's Diego Lainez for being short." The on-loan Reading defender was involved in a post-final-whistle altercation with Derby County's Tom Lawrence, in which he hooked his arm around the back of Lawrence's head before reacting to a head butt with a slap.
The red card will keep him out of action for at least a game, but the bigger picture issue is that he's shown a penchant for losing his cool and being an instigator. There's a time and place for the dark arts, but trying to prove your worth to Chelsea while attempting to climb the depth chart for the USA isn't quite it.