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From Hershey to the Fulham Road: Christian Pulisic's rise to Chelsea

Christian Pulisic's journey from Hershey, USA to Chelsea, England.

The west London rain is lashing down over Stamford Bridge. A warm summer replaced by brisk Autumn has now firmly disappeared to welcome the English winter.

Most Chelsea fans though aren't letting the weather get them down after a sixth consecutive Premier League win over Crystal Palace.

The widest smile in sight comes from the pitch. Christian Pulisic comes on from the sideline, embracing Willian with a warm hug before clapping the crowd off. The winger had netted the killer goal to wrap up the victory before swiftly being substituted for Callum Hudson-Odoi.

The American was continuing a rich vein of form. That headed goal was his fifth in three Premier League outings. After his dazzling individual display at Turf Moor – which saw the 21-year-old complete a perfect hat-trick – his goals against Watford and Palace were key moments of anticipation that sealed the points for his side.

Pulisic’s sudden rise in form has come after a tricky opening couple of months where the American has had to adapt to a new life in England and the added physicality and pace of the Premier League.  There was a sense of deja vu with Pulisic that he may have fallen into the same trap many young arrivals suffered in recent years. Weighed down by the expectation of a hefty price tag and big expectation, unsettled and distrusted by his manager would eventually lead to a swift exit. 

However the 21-year-old is fortunate that his arrival coincided with the return of Frank Lampard. 

Lampard has been patient with the 21-year-old understanding the needed patience for adaptation and allowed the former Borussia Dortmund starlet to settle into his new home. 

In many ways Pulisic's overcoming of early struggles encapsulates his still fledgling career when gazing back to his earliest days on his local 'soccer' pitches in Hershey, where he discovered his love for the sport and unique talent which catapulted him from his humble beginnings in central Pennsylvania to take the spotlight in one of England's biggest teams. 

Steve Klein, a coach for The Pennsylvania Classics spoke with NBC Sports about Pulisic's beginning playing for the respected youth team. 

"From the age of 6-9, he was playing other sports. The family weren’t just all soccer. There was never a situation where it was just one sport and that was it. But definitely at a young age, he loved soccer the most and I know he would play on his own in the back yard with his dad. He was always playing.

"We never had him playing for two teams in the club. He would play for an older age group and we never put him down into a younger age group just to win a State Cup. He would get opportunities to go and play at the Dallas Cup with teams from other states but he would never do that. I would say he played a ton of soccer but all the extra was on his own in his backyard. He played a lot but he was not playing on two or three teams.” 

His sporting genetics are no surprise given both his parents Mark and Kelly, played college soccer where the two met.  

Pulisic refers to his Father Mark as his 'biggest influence' regarding pursuing a professional career in football, with Mark being his son's coach, helping to guide him through his formative years and help his development on and off the pitch. It wasn't long before he was spotted by the US National Team and quickly progressed through the ranks before earning his first cap in 2016 for the senior side. 

In a brilliant documentary by Vice Sports called Das American, it is revealed the winger could play with both his feet from the age of three. The most intriguing aspect of Pulisic's start is the hurdle of playing with kids two years older than him. Already being short in stature, along with the age difference – Pulisic stands out in home video footage as tiny compared to his opponents. Though that early footage foreshadows the way he would eventually evade the hefty brutes at Turf Moor, leaving bigger men chasing shadows. 

"Anybody can play, it doesn't matter how tall or strong you are," Pulisic's pointed response to the physical disadvantage posed to him. 

Pulisic's talent quickly attracted the attention of Europe's biggest names, all looking to capture the signature of a burgeoning talent. 

The choice was Borussia Dortmund – based off their undeniable track record of developing potential into the first team to become stars. Pulisic and his dad left the comforts of the 'Sweetest Place on Earth' and swapped it for Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia. 

Like Chelsea, Pulisic's early days in Germany were difficult. A visa problem halted his chances of playing matches and a stark culture change caused the youngster to have second thoughts over his move. His mother Kelly recalls Christian calling her after his first day of school and detailing how he had sat in a classroom without being able to tell whether the subject was Maths or Science – feeling like an outsider. 

The language barrier only added to a rough introduction to life at Dortmund, but slowly things changed and Pulisic found his footing and then his scoring touch. Netting regularly for the youth side, putting in standout displays and impressing in training sessions sporadically with the first team, he eventually was called up from the academy by Thomas Tuchel to fight for minutes. 

At the age of 17 he would make his professional debut at home to Ingolstadt in January of 2016 – becoming the eighth youngest player to ever appear in the Bundesliga. 

It didn't take long for his talent to be recognised and he became a starter for Dortmund. In April he would net his first against Hamburg, and then again away to Stuttgart breaking another record by becoming the youngest player to net two goals in a Bundesliga season. He was now speaking the fans language and claimed more adoration and recognition back home where the hype train would begin. 

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His early difficulties, recovery and ascendancy feels identical to his first few months in Royal Blue. Now older, with more minutes under his belt – Pulisic had a new obstacle in a higher price-tag and a bigger reputation to rise to. Despite starting the season, he would soon find himself watching on from the sidelines, not playing a minute of Premier League football in September. 

Soon, thanks to online frustrations and news articles – early speculation began to rise over his future, but his new coach, Lampard, would soon put to bed a reactionary response in a reasoned manner. 

Against Southampton, Pulisic would come off to bench to set up Michy Batshuayi for the Blues fourth in a rampant win. Two weeks later, the American would come on to help unlock a stubborn Newcastle defence to earn his side a hard-fought victory. 

His impact would only get bigger when the American would be required again from the bench for a third time in a row to create havoc for the opposition defence late on. 

In Amsterdam with the game locked at 0-0, heading for a stalemate with Ajax in a crucial Champions League group game, Pulisic's direct running soon gave Chelsea the extra directness needed in search of a coveted winner. His pal, Batshuayi would latch onto his pass across the box to score the only goal of the game - giving the Londoners a landmark win. 

Finally the American would be reinstated into the starting lineup for the always daunting trip north to Turf Moor. Pulisic's struggles to deal with the physicality of the English game in early months would be tested most by Sean Dyche's outfit. 

However, like he had been doing since the age of seven, this wouldn't phase him and Pulisic would put on a remarkable individual display to score a hat-trick. Left foot, right foot – header! Pulisic did it all to knock the socks off the viewing public and arrive as a Chelsea player. 

He is now a guaranteed starter on form, seeming to grow in confidence each week - always finding himself at the heart of Chelsea's most dangerous attacks, anticipating passes and darting rapidly into space – which both of his goals against Watford and Palace demonstrated profusely. 

Lampard's glowing appraisal after Burnley spoke about why had waited to put the American into the spotlight. "He had a week's break this summer. He arrived for a big price and wanted to come straight back in but at the same time why am I going to throw him in?

"So I have to do it in the right way and get the best out of him. I'm delighted for him.

"Sometimes the toughest part of management is leaving out players that really want to play week-in, week-out. You rely on them being positive and coming on to make an impact. You have to give Christian huge credit because he looked so lively and the assist is just as important as the finish."

Pulisic's journey is further proof of Lampard's smart decision making that has benefitted a younger player – looking in a reasoned, longer-term way than a shorter-term, reactionary way many had when his minutes dried up. Lampard operates in creating an environment that is healthy for his younger players to thrive and believe the opportunities are there to gain minutes if they deserve them. Despite his name and price, Pulisic is of similar age and younger to his teammates; Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori have all become regulars this season. To expect the finished product at 21 is foolish and impatient. 

Speaking with the Mirror, Pulisic opened up on life at Chelsea and how he continues to take adversity in his stride and just stick to what has gotten him to the Premier League. 

"Of course you are not happy when you are not playing and competition is everything. But also I knew that I was not just going to come in and have a spot, I have to earn it on the pitch, and the gaffer had made me aware of that. 

“For me personally I’m sure you would have seen my picture when I visited Stamford Bridge as a kid, I adored the gaffer when he was a player here. 

"I was here as a kid and wanted to take a picture with him so to have come full circle I just have to trust his knowledge of the game and continue working hard to make it hard for him [Frank Lampard] to leave me out.

"I am happy with the way things have gone in the last few games but obviously it’s a very competitive team we’ve got here and we need to all keep pushing and giving the gaffer tough choices to make always."

Christian Pulisic's quick rise has been a fascinating tale that has included struggles and change which he has all had to live with still as a young man, growing and evolving. 

Fans might see footballers as automatons, able to flick a switch and perform effortlessly without a glimmer of doubt. Pulisic's story proves the opposite of quite an introverted individual who has been confronted with life-changing decisions from the age of 16 that have transformed his surroundings. 

Many might have fallen and given up from the culture change of Germany, the language barrier and home sickness. Others might have suffered from the burden of a nation's expectation on young shoulders and played within themselves when questions where raised early on at Chelsea – but Pulisic has faced every one of those questions early on and answered emphatically he is ready to shine in Chelsea blue.