When Christian Pulisic looks back on his first season in the Premier League, there will be a mental circle around one date: Oct. 26, 2019. That was the night he may finally have felt he belonged in a Chelsea shirt, finally showing the promise and talent he knew he had to give for his new club, as he scored a breathtaking hat trick against Burnley. First Chelsea goal, first hat trick all ticked off in three wonderfully worked strikes.
While that night served to quiet the doubters and alleviate some of the pressure a $73 million price tag can place on young shoulders, Pulisic also used it as a springboard. From arriving at his new club without a meaningful break, carrying the pressure of personifying a watershed moment for American soccer and moving to another new country, the trio of goals in his perfect hat trick (left foot, right foot, header) gave him the chance to push on.
But in this never-ending campaign in which weeks and months have merged into one exhausting year of football, Pulisic will have to forensically analyse the past year to make any sense of it. It was a spell of injuries, stunning goals, unforeseen postponements and dazzling dribbling -- the Burnley game was where he stuck his stars and stripes flag into the ground.
Prior to that night at Turf Moor, there were whispers at the stop-start beginning to his Chelsea career; now, a year on, those doubts have been replaced by overtures of praise. Pulisic might hate the wonderkid monikers, and probably quietly bristles at the "Captain America" nickname, but he has certainly made the Premier League sit up and take notice, finishing his debut season making the shortlist for Young Player of the Year.
The challenge now is doing it consistently. This is the story of Pulisic's first season in the Premier League.
The arrival at Chelsea
When Pulisic's move to Chelsea was announced back in January 2019, the $73m (£58m) fee smashed the previous record for a U.S. player, when Wolfsburg paid Hertha Berlin $19.4m for defender John Brooks in 2017. ESPN's Taylor Twellman heralded it as a "watershed moment for the American soccer player," but there were others who wondered if this move might have come a season or two early.
The agreement saw Pulisic, then 20 years old, spend the rest of the 2018-19 campaign on loan at Borussia Dortmund before moving to London. Former U.S. international Landon Donovan was concerned that Pulisic would find game time limited at Stamford Bridge. "If you are not playing games, you are getting worse," he told ESPN. His fears were hardly alleviated by then-Chelsea manager Maurizio Sarri's original take on Pulisic's signing; when asked about his future winger, Sarri responded by saying he "didn't know anything about [the] Pulisic [transfer]" until the day before it was announced.
At that time, Chelsea were then still trying to keep hold of superstar Eden Hazard, who was already into the "meet the parents" stage of his long courtship with Real Madrid, and Pulisic was playing out his final hits for Dortmund. It was a tough final five months for the American at Dortmund: injuries didn't help his cause while Jadon Sancho was starting on the wing. The German press was merciless, too: Bild said Chelsea's decision was "madness" and that they'd bought a player who was "positionally limited" and had "stagnated."
Pulisic arrived at Chelsea in late May 2019, talking up how excited he was to be training alongside Hazard. "Any player would be dumb not to want to be in the same team as him [Hazard]," Pulisic told the BBC in May. But by June 7, Hazard had joined Real Madrid for €100m (£88.5m), Chelsea had been hit with a one-season transfer ban, Sarri had departed for Juventus and Frank Lampard had taken over as manager.
And then, as soon as Pulisic arrived at Chelsea's training ground in Cobham, he was off to the Gold Cup with the USMNT. There, he ended up being named Young Player of the Gold Cup, helping his team to the final. Rather than taking a proper break, he was back on the plane to Japan after a week off to link up with Chelsea on their preseason tour -- an attitude that pleased his new manager.
"It's how I would have been [coming back from holiday early]," Lampard said. "It is a huge move for him to a big club and he is a top young player who will only go one way. It was important we start the season as well as we can. I know we have injuries but we will need him. I have not met him, I have spoken to him, but it was a good impression." Privately, sources have told ESPN, Lampard was wary of overloading the new signing and conscious of managing Pulisic's fatigue upon his arrival with his new team.
Pulisic remembers boarding the team coach for the first time and how nervous he was, pinching himself at what he was achieving. "I remember thinking 'I'm at Chelsea ... this is insane,'" he said -- his emotions quickly overtaken by the quiet bus that welcomed him as his jet-lagged teammates caught up on sleep.
"I go and sit on the bus and nobody even noticed me. Nobody said anything. There were maybe one or two guys who said 'hey hello' and I was like what's going on here?" Pulisic told his former U.S. teammate Jermaine Jones on the 13&Me podcast. "Those first couple of days of training, I was nervous. You know how it's like when you move to a new team. They're nice guys off the field, but to earn that respect, you have to show on the field you have that ability -- that's just how it works."
By Day 3 of their preseason camp, Pulisic had started to show some of his lethal finishing in training and was striking up friendships with his new teammates.
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Getting settled at Stamford Bridge
Lampard's first Chelsea side was to be, out of circumstance, built on youth. The transfer ban meant he would look to the club's emerging talent and Pulisic, 21, was part of a burgeoning group of bright prospects that included playmaker Mason Mount, midfielder Callum Hudson-Odoi, striker Tammy Abraham and defender Fikayo Tomori.
As the new season started, though, Pulisic found himself largely named on the bench.
"Maybe my confidence wasn't fully there, I wasn't fully ready for the whole thing," Pulisic said in June to Sky Sports, looking back at his start. His debut came in Chelsea's 4-0 loss at Manchester United. He made his first start three days later in Chelsea's European Super Cup clash with Liverpool -- Chelsea would lose 7-6 on penalties -- and grabbed his first assist in the process, teeing up Olivier Giroud's opening goal.
"There's more to come from Pulisic. We must remember his age, he's only 20," Lampard said after the match. "It took him a bit to get into the game, but when he got into it we saw what a player he is and that's a good sign for the club."
It would be a frustrating couple of months. Pulisic was adjusting to the physicality of the league, and also battling the knock-on effects of an intense summer for club and country. His first Premier League start came against Leicester on Aug. 18, and his first topflight assist came vs. Norwich on Aug. 24. But in September he was an unused substitute in three straight league matches and once in the Champions League -- only an appearance in the 7-1 thrashing of Grimsby in the Carabao Cup would break the run of bench duty, where he'd managed just one assist on a day when even the kit manager would have fancied scoring.
Pulisic said at the time he was "frustrated" and had to "grind" this time out; Lampard wanted Pulisic to prove himself in training in order to get a chance on the field. It was a slow process: against Valencia on Sept.17, 2019, Mount picked up an early injury and Lampard went for Pedro instead as replacement. But as he remained patient, Pulisic took his opportunities when they were given to him, notching an assist against Southampton on Oct. 6 when he set up his former Dortmund teammate, Michy Batshuayi.
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All the while, as he kept a lid on his own frustration, others started to talk on his behalf, speculating about how he was feeling about the move and whether it was a bad call.
Looking back now with hindsight, Pulisic's former USMNT manager, Jurgen Klinsmann, got it spot on amid the speculation: he said at the time Pulisic would need to bring his "elbows out" and be "patient." Pulisic remembers trying to second-guess Lampard, wondering why he wasn't getting the starts he wanted, but had to frequently remind himself of the importance of moderating his own expectations. "I wasn't going to go in and score a hat trick immediately," he later said. "I didn't start [as many games as I wanted] so I was thinking, OK new team, so it's about staying strong in your head and realising everything wasn't going to come instantly," he told the 13&Me podcast.
Then Burnley happened.
"It's about patience and timing, man, and once you get that feeling and confidence, then everything changes -- then next game, goal, next game, goal, next game, assist -- you have to stay level-headed and be ready for your time," Pulisic said.
It was the perfect hat trick and showed exactly why Chelsea bought Pulisic. "It was meant to be, it was my day," he'd later tell NBC when looking back on the hat trick. His critics were silenced.
"I know what a good player he is -- I see that first-hand," Lampard said of Pulisic after that hat trick. "There are things he has to learn and improve because he's just turned 21. It's the same with all young players. There are things that he's going to work on, and I think he knows it. He knows that I'm driving that daily in training. The way he's trained in the past few weeks, and the impact he's had when playing, he's said to everyone, 'Here I am' and what talent he does have. I'm really pleased for him.
"It's what we need from all our attacking players; to be a threat, to play like that, have a ruthless edge about how they finish and he showed the full package."
Building -- and rebuilding -- momentum
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Pulisic's November was impressive. He made it five goals in three league games with a close-range finish against Watford and he nodded in another vs. Crystal Palace, the anchor of Chelsea's youngest-ever starting XI in their Premier League history. A hip injury saw him miss out on USMNT duty, but he scored against Valencia at the end of the month and was starting to show his lethal, evasive running, drifting in off the wing, turning defenders on their heels and creating space.
December was more a stop-start month, and then on Jan. 4, 2020, Pulisic picked up a thigh injury that was meant to keep him out of action for at most four weeks. It would rule him out for far longer. Chelsea tried to get Pulisic back at the end of January and then again in mid-February, when he was back training with the under-23s, but the thigh injury took longer than expected to heal.
"Of course you miss him," Lampard said in mid-February. "He's a quality player and he was having a really good patch pre-Christmas. Others have to stand up too, but we'll be happy when he's back." And then the world was stopped by COVID-19.
Pulisic used the break as an opportunity to return home to Hershey, Pennsylvania, and recharge surrounded by friends and family. But rather than staying sat on the sofa, he'd wake early for the Chelsea Zoom training sessions and then spend the afternoons delivering food packages for feedingamerica.org or helping the local hospital. The time, as he later told Sky Sports, gave him an opportunity to make sure he was "100 percent fit and ready to go." When he checked back in at Cobham ahead of the restart, Lampard described him as "hungry" and was impressed by the "real desire about him" and "sharpness in his game."
Captain America was ready for liftoff.
On June 21 in Chelsea's first Premier League match since the restart of the season, Pulisic came off the bench to score an equaliser at Aston Villa, drifting in at the far post to knock home Cesar Azpilicueta's cross. Four days later he scored the opener against Manchester City, running through the City defence from his own half and calmly slotting the ball past Ederson. (The goal, and ensuing Chelsea win, cemented the Premier League title for Liverpool.)
Pulisic was named man of the match against Leicester in the FA Cup three days later, and won a penalty and a free kick with nifty footwork in Chelsea's defeat to West Ham at the start of July. The Hazard comparisons were becoming more frequent, and as he twisted and turned Watford on July 4 and won a penalty, he cemented his spot in Chelsea's starting lineup. He grabbed his eighth Chelsea goal against Crystal Palace on July 7, and after a dismal team performance against Sheffield United, he teed up Giroud's winner at home against Norwich on July 14.
Sat in the stands watching Pulisic that night, you saw a calmness about him. As he warmed up prematch, largely on his own, he looked assured, joking occasionally with teammates but resembling an Olympic sprinter loosening up before exploding out of the starting blocks. He looked at home, no longer the nervous newcomer. Norwich manager Daniel Farke, who coached Pulisic at Borussia Dortmund II from 2015 to 2017, described him as "top class" and "worth each and every pound" Chelsea spent on him.
"Christian will have a bright future and will be a world-class player one day and this is the best way to develop in this direction," Farke said.
Later that week, Lampard was asked by ESPN about Pulisic's form, and he revealed they had done work on the training pitch to improve the winger's physicality. "I've seen real improvement in his all-round game," Lampard said. "Coming to the Premier League is very difficult because of the physical nature of the league. We have to remember how young Christian is and also the summer that he had.
"I think he found those physical demands pretty strong in the beginning and now you're seeing him deal with those better. A lot of that is a credit to himself and how he's approached it -- he's worked with our strength and conditioning coach Adam Burrows, who's fantastic, but they've worked together -- so it's Christian who has to take on that responsibility, and he has.
"Physically that's helped him, but it's also just his talent is coming through. Looking forward, I want to see more of what he's shown in recent times, which is goals and assists, because that's what the best in the world do in that position. I feel he has the capability to do that as he improves and that can be the edge as his game moves on levels."
Pulisic's form also made good viewing for USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter.
"You see now that he's picking the ball up in space, in pockets and just being really aggressive going at defenders, dribbling defenders," Berhalter said on July 24. "It's not just only on the sidelines, now he's getting it towards the middle of the field and he's had some really positive effects taking players on.
"And then getting used to his teammates and his teammates gaining trust in him. If you watch the games, you can see the dramatic shift and how his teammates relate to him, that they actually look to him. Whereas times in the beginning, you're thinking, 'Wait, why don't they pass him this ball?' Now, they get the ball and their first glance is to him. And you know he's really grown to be an important part of that team, and it's been fun to watch."
When Pulisic arrived at Chelsea, winning the respect of his teammates and Chelsea's supporters was all he wanted.
The turning point vs. Liverpool
The game that made even casual fans sit up and take notice came at Anfield against the recently crowned champions, Liverpool. Pulisic didn't start, but he changed the game after coming on as a 59th-minute substitute. In the space of 14 minutes, he helped Chelsea battle back from 4-1 down to 4-3. To set up Abraham for an easy finish, he danced past Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fabinho and Joe Gomez before squaring for Abraham, and then grabbed a superb goal for himself. The U.S. star drifted into the penalty box off the right flank, collected a beautifully weighted cross from Hudson-Odoi, cushioned the ball on his chest, took two tiny touches to dodge past Alexander-Arnold and then rifled a shot past Alisson.
It gave a sign of his immediate talent, but equally showed what he could offer next season and beyond for Chelsea and the USMNT.
Though Pulisic said he was uneasy about any comparisons with Hazard, aware of the incredible legacy he'd left at Stamford Bridge over seven sparkling seasons (including two league titles and two Europa Leagues), Lampard was seeing similarities between the two.
"I was here for Eden's first year and it is not easy coming to the Premier League, and for Eden in that first year it was [all about] adapting to the Premier League," Lampard said after the Liverpool game. "Christian has had his moments of that, but in midseason he had a really good patch and then since the restart, he has been in incredible form. Only the injury he picked up in the Norwich game has kept him out of the semifinal when he's flying.
"He is so young and he has such natural talent and he creates goals and scores goals. He is a big player for us so I'm delighted to see him come through fit. Clearly he will be a big player in these next few games for us and going forward as well."
And then came the FA Cup final, where Pulisic started brilliantly, scoring a lovely worked goal and then as he attacked again in the second half, his hamstring went. He was helped off the field, distraught and watched on as Arsenal went on to lift the trophy.
But once he recovers, it'll be back into training and continuing that process of nailing down a first-team spot. He's already training with new teammates Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner; with rumours continuing around Chelsea's pursuit of Germany's next big thing, Kai Havertz, it won't get any easier for Pulisic. But Lampard's preseason challenge to Pulisic will be to improve his number of goals and assists -- that's what eventually set Hazard apart, and Pulisic has the capability to achieve similar numbers.
Pulisic is a reluctant trend-setter and wary of the weight on his shoulders as the record-breaking American in the Premier League, but he's comfortable in his own shoes and showing the world why Chelsea paid $73m for him. The pundits who questioned the purchase at the start of the season are now putting him in the world-class bracket, but above all, Pulisic's biggest achievement, on a personal level, is that he now feels at home at Chelsea and has earned the respect of his teammates.
The next Hazard? No, Pulisic is making a name for himself in his own right.