Chelsea given 21 reasons to rue cut-price Christian Pulisic sale

Ryan Baldi
Christian Pulisic with the USA badge.
Christian Pulisic with the USA badge.

When things get stale, try something new. It’s a principle Christian Pulisic has embraced this season and it has revitalised his career.

Before January 2016, Hershey, Pennsylvania, was known for one thing: chocolate. But then a 17-year-old Pulisic made an electrifying breakthrough into the Borussia Dortmund first team and Hershey gained a second claim to fame as the birthplace of America’s greatest soccer prospect.

Pulisic seemed destined for superstardom. But while a £58million move to Chelsea in 2019 would make him a Champions League winner, a combination of the club’s dearly held tradition of managerial instability, injuries and inconsistent form saw his career stall by the end of his four years at Stamford Bridge.

In search of new pastures last summer, he broke new ground. He joined AC Milan, with the Italian giants taking advantage of the 25-year-old’s shrunken market value to snap him up for less than a third of the fee Chelsea paid for him.

READ: Ex-Man Utd man claims Pulisic would ‘he’d still be’ at Chelsea ‘if he was ‘Dutch or Italian’

And when Pulisic made his Serie A debut, scoring in a 2-0 victory away to Bologna on the opening weekend of the season, he became the first American player signed permanently for Milan to play a league fixture for the storied club – Netherlands-born USMNT full-back Sergino Dest played for the Rossoneri on loan last season, and Oguchi Onyewu was a Milan player for two years between 2009 and 2011 but recorded more training-ground scraps with Zlatan Ibrahimovic (one) than Serie A appearances (zero).

“I’m just proud to be an AC Milan player, it doesn’t matter where I’m from or becoming unique,” Pulisic told ESPN shortly after sealing his Milanese move.

“This club has won titles all its history, and while I’m obviously keen to represent my country and to be the first guy from the US to come here and make a big impact, the key fact is that I’m here to help AC Milan keep winning trophies.”

It’s not just in his surroundings that Pulisic is embracing change and stepping out of his comfort zone; he been playing in a previously unfamiliar position in Stefano Pioli’s side, too.

Emerging at Dortmund, Pulisic played predominately on the left wing, where he could cut inside on to his stronger right foot. With the United States national team, he has most commonly played as a No.10, the star of the team and its central attacking fulcrum.

At Milan, where Portuguese winger Rafael Leao is the undisputed occupant of the left flank, Pulisic has most often played on the right, both in a 4-3-3 formation and a 4-2-3-1. Another former Chelsea player, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, has tended to be preferred in the No.10 spot in the latter set-up.

Pulisic’s success in the role – with Pioli valuing his ability to thrive in tight spaces and attack defenders with fearless, direct dribbling – has been such that €20 million summer signing Samuel Chukwueze, a more natural right winger, has found his opportunities limited.

“He’s a footballer,” Pioli said of Pulisic. “When I say it like that, what I mean is that he’s one of those who knows to do the right thing in the right moment. Having someone like that makes everything simpler. He can play in different roles.”

READ: Phil Foden is master of the small spaces and player of the season

And for his willingness to adapt to a new role in a new environment, he has been rewarded with new levels of production – a 20-yard left-footed rocket to open the scoring in last weekend’s 3-0 win over Lecce was Pulisic’s 10th league goal of the season, a career high. His 13 strikes across all competitions is his best-ever return, too; likewise his tally of total goal contributions when his eight assists are added.

In January, he was named the US Male Soccer Player of the Year for a record-equalling fourth time, claiming the award for the first time since 2021. And, according to Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport, Milan have been so impressed that they are already considering triggering an option to extend his contract a further year.

US soccer is entering its most crucial period in three decades, since hosting the 1994 World Cup and the launch of Major League Soccer two years later. Lionel Messi’s presence in MLS, the league’s ground-breaking AppleTV+ broadcast deal and the fact this year’s Copa America, next year’s World Club Cup and the 2026 World Cup are all set to be hosted – at least in part – in the States are coalescing factors in a monumental opportunity to further grow the game in the US.

With that in mind, it should not be underestimated what a boon it is that the face of the USMNT is smiling again.

“When those big international moments come along, starting with next summer’s Copa America, I’m just going to be that much more battle-experienced,” Pulisic told ESPN. “I view earning my place and performing well for AC Milan as a huge chance for me to really step up and go to another level as a player.”

Pulisic’s move to Milan, so far, is working out for almost all involved. The only related party with reason to rue the cut-price deal are Chelsea, whose failure to maximise the midfielder’s unquestioned skills has seen them miss out both on a marketable star player and a hefty return in the transfer market.

For everyone else – from Pulisic to Milan to the USMNT – it’s been a deal as sweet as his hometown’s primary export.