Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is not your wonderboy anymore
Christian Pulisic is but 20 years old and the number of effusive. Words already written about him is staggering. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is not your wonderboy anymore…
His classic speed. His majestic acceleration. To his feet that defenders can only trip or wave at him as he flies past. The near clairvoyance with which he finds space amid a thicket of defenders near the goal. The way he shoots, like an archer. The way he sets his jaw, like a bouncer.
To be clear, the enthusiasm is warranted. Christian Pulisic is the most talented player in American soccer history. And, should he pull it off, what he is about to do — that is, play for Chelsea in the English Premier League — will be one of the most impressive feats in American sports history. Yes, Tim Howard played for Manchester United, but he was a goalkeeper; and yes, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan made the move to the EPL as well, but they debuted at smaller clubs in Fulham and Everton.
Pulisic is different. By joining Chelsea, he is the first American aiming to star for one of the game’s largest clubs. Nearly half the population of the planet watches the Premier League, more than 3 billion people a season. If Pulisic, a young, fresh-faced American, succeeds — if he scores and dazzles and captivates fans in the U.S. and Europe and China and India and all over Africa — it changes the calculus on him. His ceiling isn’t Landon Donovan anymore. It’s Lionel Messi. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is not your wonderboy anymore:
On a dank
day in Dortmund, Germany, this spring, I meet Pulisic at a restaurant in the city center. He is dressed Euro-casual, in tight jeans and a black hoodie. I notice the sweatshirt right away because it has words written in circles on the sleeves.
“It’s from the Uninterrupted guys,” he says. “LeBron started this thing with ‘More Than an Athlete,’ and they sent me one.”
Pulisic typically has presented himself as more quiet than brash, but knowing the move he’s about to make, the sweatshirt makes me wonder if something has changed. It wouldn’t be crazy. Science tells us that if a person picks up two objects at the same time and they have identical weights but different sizes, the larger object is the one that will actually seem lighter. (It’s true: Try it with an iPhone and a Kindle.)
This phenomenon has to do with the incredible power of human expectations: We expect the bigger thing to be heavier, so it feels lighter. In sports, the work of becoming a legend is the same either way, but if you make it look bigger, then actually doing the lifting might feel easier. Many superstars have done it this way: Tiger Woods when he said “Hello, world”; LeBron when he welcomed comparisons to Michael Jordan before he was out of high school.
So maybe Pulisic has decided he wants the attention and limelight and microphones that will come at Chelsea. Maybe he is ready to stand up and make a grander statement on, say, pay equity in soccer or the development model in the United States. Maybe he wants to speak.
“You’re part of it then?” I ask Pulisic about Uninterrupted. His forehead crinkles. His eyes drop.
“Um, not like part of it,” he says. “I support it, I guess you could say.” Later, he explains that the fame and the platform might be the bit about his Chelsea move that most challenges him, because he doesn’t particularly like being famous.
Fair enough, I tell him, except he just made a career move that guarantees the greatest scrutiny an American soccer player has ever received. He sighs. Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic is not your wonderboy anymore…
I have schnitzel
Pulisic has a salad, and then he leads me through the Borussia Dortmund locker room at the team’s stadium. He stops in front of his locker and explains, with a touch of wistfulness, that when he saw his jersey hanging there for the first time in 2016, it was the “coolest thing in the world.”
Outside on the field, standing in front of the towering south stand where 25,000 fans crowd together to form the so-called Yellow Wall during games, he almost giggles as he reminisces about the noise in the stadium after a goal.
“You hear the stadium announcer yell ‘Christian!’ and then everyone yells your last name back,” he says, cocking his head as though it is echoing right now. “I mean, scoring a last-minute goal in front of this wall, and you see the beer flying everywhere and …”
His voice trails off. Leaving for Chelsea might have been a fairly straightforward business decision for Pulisic, but the departure from Dortmund is difficult. Dortmund was a haven for Pulisic, a place to develop his game and discover how he wanted to present himself as an athlete. In soccer terms, Dortmund was Pulisic’s boyhood home.
Leave Dortmund on Jan. 2. Chelsea shipped $73 million to the German club, making Pulisic the most expensive American player sold in soccer history. (It’s not close either: Defender John Brooks is second after his $22.5 million jump from Hertha Berlin to Wolfsburg in 2017; Dempsey’s shift from Fulham to Tottenham in 2012 cost Spurs only $9.6 million.)
To Pulisic, the move is part of a progression, the obvious next step on his path. It is natural to him, expected even. In fact, the most animated I see him get over the course of our conversations is when I mention how he has often been called a “wonderboy” by broadcasters and fans and analysts, a term that was originally flattering but now seems to strike him as borderline demeaning.
“The reason I just don’t like to hear it anymore is because I feel like now I’ve been a part of this enough,” he says. “And I think I’ve earned my spots in teams and shouldn’t just be looked at as just a prodigy.”
He takes a breath. “I don’t see myself as that label anymore. It’s just not how I feel.”
Pulisic is 20. Kylian Mbappe, star of France’s 2018 World Cup win, is also 20 and isn’t called a wonderboy or a prodigy — he’s just a superstar. At this stage of his career, Pulisic says, he doesn’t want to be compared to other players his age; he just wants to be compared to other players.
That, I assure him, will happen quickly and often in the Premier League. But Pulisic will always reckon with a different contextual comparison because of his nationality. It doesn’t especially matter that Mbappe is French when considering his value as a player; France has produced plenty of international stars and will produce more. Pulisic, though, is playing as the face (and legs and feet) of American soccer. If he fails, it isn’t clear when another American will have a chance like this.