Consider the burst—the change of pace he uses to blow by defenders and eviscerate the opposition—and it should come as no surprise that Christian Pulisic likes to get things done quickly. He’s good enough, so he’s old enough.
Pulisic’s pro career has been short but historic. He’s already the youngest American man to start and score in a World Cup qualifier, the youngest non-German to score in the Bundesliga, the youngest U.S. player to appear and score in the UEFA Champions League and the youngest to win a significant European trophy. He accomplished that final feat three years ago at 18 years of age, drawing the foul that led to the winning penalty in Borussia Dortmund’s defeat of Eintracht Frankfurt in the DFB-Pokal final.
That day, Pulisic became just the third U.S. national team player to win the domestic cup tournament in one of Europe’s “Big Five” nations. The others are midfielder Thomas Dooley (DFB-Pokal with Kaiserslautern in 1990) and goalkeeper Tim Howard (FA Cup with Manchester United in 2004). Those were noteworthy accomplishments, but Pulisic’s could be more significant to those concerned with the growth of American soccer. He was the first U.S.-born and developed field player to do it.
Now, before anyone else had the chance to match him, he’s 90 minutes away from doing it again. And he’s still just 21 years old.
Despite being understandably impeded at times by an adaptation period, Chelsea’s attacking depth, a winter groin injury and the coronavirus pandemic, Pulisic’s first season in England has been a rousing success by just about any reasonable measure. He can’t be slowed for long. On Saturday, the domestic campaign will conclude under the arch at Wembley Stadium, where Chelsea will meet London rival Arsenal in the 139th FA Cup final.
Pulisic missed the semifinal triumph over Manchester United on July 19 and entered as a substitute three days later at Liverpool, but he started in Sunday’s Premier League finale vs. Wolverhampton Wanderers and pronounced himself “100% fit” for the final in an ESPN interview published Thursday. Considering Pulisic’s recent form, which was good enough to earn him one of seven nominations for the EPL’s player of the month award, it’s tough to imagine him being left out of Chelsea manager Frank Lampard’s lineup at Wembley.
The FA Cup may be the equivalent of the DFB-Pokal in sporting terms, but it surpasses its German counterpart culturally. The FA Cup is almost as old as the sport itself, and its roots stretch back to football’s birth in 19th-century England. The first final was contested in 1872, just seven years after the end of the American Civil War, and for years it was the biggest and most celebrated day on the country’s sports calendar. Only in the past couple decades has it been overshadowed by the Premier League and Champions League. Those competitions are the glittering manifestation of modern football. The FA Cup, meanwhile, evokes soccer’s traditions and inclusive origins (736 clubs entered this season), and for that reason it retains a significant chunk of its erstwhile glamour.
Wembley's stands will be empty Saturday, but the world will be watching. And Pulisic said he’s primed for an occasion that could provide a satisfying topper to an eventful season under the spotlight.
“Obviously, it’s been a crazy year. So we have this one chance to go out and win something really big and yeah I’m thrilled. I’m super excited for this game,” he told ESPN. “It would be incredible [to win], with how this year has gone, like I said a lot of ups and downs. I think there’s no better way to finish off the year than winning a trophy, you know, with the guys. That’s something that we really want, and obviously that’ll just be another thing to just remember from my first year, and obviously that’ll be an incredible achievement. We all want to finish strong.”
It’s an achievement just to come this far. The Premier League’s collective purchasing power, not to mention its renown, make it the pinnacle of club football (along with the top tier of La Liga). Americans have moved to England and succeeded, but it’s typically been at a club like Fulham, where relegation to the Football League Championship was more likely than a climb up the Wembley steps. Among the exceptions are the two Americans who preceded Pulisic as FA Cup finalists—Howard and John Harkes.
Howard joined the likes of Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel on the list of U.S. goalkeepers who excelled abroad. American soccer developed from the net out, and Howard’s move to Manchester at 24 was testament. He was in net when United defeated Millwall, 3-0, in the 2004 FA Cup final, and on the bench the following year when the Red Devils fell to Arsenal on penalties. After moving to Everton in ’06, he backstopped the Toffees to the final in ’09, only to lose to Chelsea. Lampard scored the winning goal that day.
Harkes was more of an outlier. The University of Virginia product found a home in Sheffield Wednesday’s midfield in the early 1990s and helped the title-contending Owls to England’s showpiece match in 1993. It took the Gunners until the 119th minute of a replay to deny Harkes a winner’s medal.
“It looked like you were going in to see the Wizard of Oz.” Harkes said of playing in the cup final.
“Here we are, many years later,” he told The Washington Post. “We helped advance the game, and now the next generation of players is coming through. It’s pretty special to see Christian in an FA Cup final. You look at the big picture and you say he does our country proud.”
That big picture obviously includes Pulisic’s rise with Dortmund, the Champions League exploits, the German Cup triumph and the record $73 million transfer fee. But the past couple months, during which he’s excelled time and again for a European giant playing under the sharpest scrutiny and with the highest aspirations, represents something new for a U.S. field player. Pulisic hasn’t just competed in big games. He’s changed them.
In his 10 appearances since the restart (nine EPL and one FA Cup), Pulisic has tallied four goals and four assists, drawn numerous fouls and put opponents under relentless pressure. His comfort playing in wide areas or finding spaces in the channels—or even in front of goal—make him difficult to plan for or mark. And that aforementioned change of pace makes him almost impossible to stay with. Pulisic’s ability to dribble the ball past and through defenders, using both sides of both feet with a frenetic grace, is almost reminiscent of Lionel Messi.
It took less than a season for Pulisic to crack the Chelsea lineup, to make a believer of Lampard and to adapt to the robust style of play in the Premier League.
“It takes a while to adapt to a foreign league,” U.S. national team coach Gregg Berhalter said during a recent conference call with reporters. “Players have a difficult time adapting to new countries and there was that adaptation period he needed to get over. The second part was adapting to the English game from a physical standpoint as well, and knowing how he can use his skill sets—because he has a ton of skill sets—to be most effective.”
Pulisic told SiriusXM that he’s been “kicked in Concacaf a few times as well,” but there’s a difference between Antigua and Arsenal.
"You see now that [Pulisic] was picking the ball up in space, in pockets and just being really aggressive going at defenders, dribbling defenders," Berhalter said. "It's not just only on the sideline. Now he's getting it towards the middle of the field and he's had some really positive effects taking players on.”
Prime examples of Pulisic’s versatility came during that recent game at Anfield, where he almost single-handedly brought Chelsea back from a three-goal hole. Pulisic entered around the hour mark and mere moments later, he sliced through four flailing Liverpool defenders to set up teammate Tammy Abraham. That play started near the left touchline. Pulisic’s comfort in the penalty area was on display about a dozen minutes later, when he settled a looping pass with his chest, turned a Liverpool defender and crushed a shot into the top right corner.
"He's so young. He has got such natural talent,” Lampard said following the 5-3 defeat. "He scores goals, he creates goals and he is a big player for us. Delighted to see him come through fit. Clearly he will be a big player for us in these next few games but going forward as well.”
There are only two matches remaining on the schedule in this unique season for player and club—Saturday’s cup showdown and then on Aug. 8, the second leg of a Champions League round-of-16 matchup with Bayern Munich. There, the Blues will have to overcome another three-goal deficit. That’s unlikely against the German juggernaut, leaving the FA Cup final as the best chance to punctuate the season positively and add to the club’s honors list.
Of course, it represents an opportunity to add to Pulisic’s quickly expanding list of achievements as well.
"I've definitely learned a lot. Coming to a new league, a brand new team, a lot of things changed for me,” he told ESPN. “I think I had a lot of stuff to overcome as well with an injury in the middle of it. Obviously COVID-19 changed a lot of things as well. To be here in this position after my first season, I think I can say I'm happy. I think I've come a long way.”
Now there’s just 90 minutes to go, to become part of English football’s storied history.
"Wembley is a beautiful stadium,” he said. “We’ve just played there and obviously without fans, it is going to be a little different. But the feeling will be the same if we can get that trophy.”