Wednesday morning, it was confirmed that 20-year-old American soccer star Christian Pulisic will move from Borussia Dortmund to Chelsea in a deal worth a reported $73 million (that’s just the transfer fee, his salary will be negotiated separately), with Pulisic staying at Dortmund until the end of the season.
I’m still processing the fact that this actually happened. It had been rumored to be in the works for weeks, but in the world of soccer transfer rumors everything must be taken with a sizeable grain of salt.
Before I dive into this, a disclaimer: my two favorite soccer teams in the world are the United States National Team and Chelsea FC, so while I may be biased in my takes, I also consider myself well informed as far as the implications.
There will be far-reaching impacts of this deal, and I wanted to give my thoughts on how those may all play out.
Is This Deal Good for Him?
To say the least, it’s been a tough season thus far for Pulisic. He’s dealt with a number of lingering muscle injuries in his legs, missing several games for both Dortmund and the USMNT. Stepping forward in his absence has been 18-year-old Jadon Sancho, a rising English star who has seized Pulisic’s spot in Dortmund’s starting lineup, scoring 6 goals and notching 7 assists in 17 games this season. In short, it looked as if Pulisic may need a move away from Dortmund in order to continue his development (though it should not be understated how important Dortmund have been in making him the player he is becoming). It makes sense for him to move, but does it make sense for him to move to Chelsea?
Chelsea manager Mauricio Sarri said on Tuesday that he would want another winger in the summer, and lo and behold less than 24 hours later the announcement of Pulisic’s transfer was made. Pulisic traditionally plays on the right wing, a position currently split at Chelsea between Willian and Pedro. Both are now north of 30 (31 and 32, respectively), and there is uncertainty about their futures. Meanwhile, Chelsea’s best player, left wing Eden Hazard, may be on his way out in the summer. Pulisic will have to battle for his place, but he may be arriving at Chelsea at just the right time.
Pulisic has made it no secret that he had always dreamed about playing in the Premier League (though he grew up as a Manchester United fan) and thus will certainly be excited at the opportunity.
I also think Mauricio Sarri’s system should be a good fit for Pulisic. He’s an incredibly hard-working player, willing to track back from his offensive position and contribute defensively when needed. The squad needed to add a player like Pulisic, and only time will tell whether he was the right choice.
Of course, as a young player going to Chelsea, as a player moving for that kind of money, and as America’s greatest soccer export to date, there will be challenges.
Chelsea do not have a great reputation of giving young talent a chance, and there are countless examples of players not being given enough opportunity at Chelsea only for them to become world class elsewhere (most notably Mohammad Salah at Liverpool and Kevin De Bruyne at Manchester City). That said, neither were acquired for the kind of fee being shelled out for Pulisic, so there may be pressure on the club to give him playing time. Next there’s the money, and the pressure this kind of money brings with it. Sometimes such signings are clearly worth every penny, such as when Real Madrid signed Cristiano Ronaldo from Manchester United in 2008 or when Liverpool signed goalkeeper Alisson Becker from Roma this past summer. However, there are plenty of examples (particularly at Chelsea) of players not living up to their bill (Fernando Torres comes to mind). Pulisic has already had to bear the entire weight of the American soccer universe on his shoulders and has coped well thus-far, and I think this will serve him well to handle the pressure he’ll face at Stamford Bridge.
Finally, he will be judged differently because he’s American. Particularly in England, American soccer has long-been the butt of the joke. MLS is considered a mediocre league for washed-up former stars (David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, David Villa) and players who couldn’t cut it in Europe (Bradley Wright-Phillips, Josef Martinez, Giovani Dos Santos). While England has been the home of some of America’s best soccer players over the years, most have been goalkeepers (Howard, Keller, Friedel, Guzan) with the only standout attacking player being Clint Dempsey. Pulisic is going to be graded on a curve by English fans and media. He is the most recent in a long line of announced American soccer messiahs, all the previous of which have either flopped completely (Freddy Adu) or simply not quite risen to the heights of hoped-for international superstardom (Landon Donovan). I firmly believe Christian Pulisic has the ability to be that player who takes American soccer to new heights, and moving to a club like Chelsea is a great step forward in that process. Given his potential, this is an opportunity it makes sense for him to jump at.
Is This a Good Deal for Them?
There’s no way around the fact that $73 million is a lot of money. It’s the 10th largest transfer fee ever paid by a Premier League club and the 25th largest fee in the history of world football. These big fees have become fairly common at Chelsea, but billionaire owner Roman Abromovich has said the club will largely have to financially sustain itself going forward without further investment from him.
So where are Chelsea going to get all that money? Especially after signing goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga for €80 million this summer? The club recently announced that it made a record profit of £62 million last year, so they’re in the position to make these kind of investments.
The other piece of this is that it would be naïve to think Chelsea were only interested in Pulisic for his soccer skills. Christian Pulisic will be the most popular American soccer player for the foreseeable future. Every soccer club in the world, particularly Premier League clubs, wants to grow their fanbase in America. Chelsea are going to sell a ridiculous amount of jerseys because of this signing (including to yours truly). Even if Pulisic isn’t a tremendous success on the field, he will certainly be a success for the club’s bank account.
As far as the on-field portion goes, as I said I think Pulisic is a good fit and it’s undeniable that Chelsea need further depth and youth on the wings.
Chelsea have certainly not been shy about taking risks, although many will certainly see this transfer as a large risk given that Pulisic’s value is largely based on potential rather than previous accomplishments.
It makes sense financially and tactically, and if Pulisic is a success Chelsea could become America’s favorite soccer team.
What Does This Mean?
Anyone involved with American Soccer, from players to team owners to fans, will be hoping Pulisic is a massive success at Chelsea. American soccer has been waiting for its moment to truly arrive on the international stage (as the Men in Blazers put it, soccer has been America’s sport of the future since 1972) and having an American player acquired for this kind of money by this kind of team succeed would certainly to the trick.
It goes without saying that 2018 was a tough year for American soccer. Between this move for Pulisic and the Women’s World Cup, 2019 could be a year of big things for the USA.
This could also change the power dynamics of American soccer fandom. Arsenal and Manchester United were the first English teams to develop large American followings, followed by Liverpool, Chelsea, and most recently Tottenham. That hierarchy has largely stayed the same, with Arsenal and Liverpool in particular emerging as America’s favorite European clubs. However, if the next generation of fans all want a Pulisic Chelsea jersey we could be looking at a very different landscape in a decade’s time.
I know this is easy for me to say as a Chelsea fan, but I think American fans of other teams should see this as a potentially very good thing for soccer in the US. If Pulisic succeeds, he will help bring soccer to new heights in terms of popularity. Perhaps more importantly, if he succeeds it will make big clubs more willing to spend money on the next generation of American talent, which is full of potential star players.
Worst case scenario, the global soccer community gives the United States the same lack of respect it currently does. Best case, this is game-changer.
This move won’t concern Hazard much. He’s a guaranteed starter week-in and week-out, and Pulisic coming to town doesn’t change that. This is also assuming the two ever play in a match together, given the very real possibility that Hazard leaves for Real Madrid in the summer. If Hazard does stay at Chelsea, however, Pulisic would provide depth and with it the opportunity for Hazard to get a little more rest. It also demonstrates willingness by the club to invest in attacking talent to take some burden off Hazard. Pulisic is an investment for the future, and if Hazard is going to sign a new contract it’s important for Chelsea to demonstrate they’re thinking long-term.
Willian and Pedro
If there are any losers in this transfer, it’s these two. Pedro is clearly not the player he once was at Barcelona, while Willian’s game has lost some of its luster and he has become one of the favorite places of blame for Chelsea fans when games aren’t going to plan. Again, I’m confident at least one will leave next summer. If either stay, Pulisic is direct competition, and at over a decade younger is clearly the club’s desired player in their position. It might be time to get out of town.
Chelsea already have a promising young winger in the squad: 18-year-old Englishman Callum Hudson-Odoi. His opportunities have been limited, confined primarily to the Europa League where Mauricio Sarri has tended to rotate the squad. He’s a favorite of the fans, who won’t want to see yet another young, home-grown talent not given the chance to succeed. Pulisic is potentially a direct threat to Hudson-Odoi’s (already limited) playing time, but only if the squad otherwise stays unchanged. The futures of Hazard, Willian and Pedro will all impact his.
If he’s not wanted at Chelsea, he’s certainly wanted elsewhere. German giants Bayern Munich have made multiple offers for him over the past couple of weeks, the most recent for a reported £30 million. I hope he stays at Chelsea, as he has a ton of potential and, along with Pulisic, could represent the next generation of Chelsea attackers.
It was widely assumed Victor Moses would leave Chelsea as soon as he could even before Pulisic was signed. That addition makes his departure all but certain. Moses has barely played this season, after his role as a wing-back was eliminated by the switch from Antonio Conte’s 3-4-3 to Sarri’s 4-3-3. He now finds himself, at best, the fifth winger on the depth chart and it’s in his best interest to move on.
Viewership of the Premier League in the US is higher that ever, largely thanks to how available it’s been made to the American audience since 2013. They’ve done this without any marquee American players as a tool to drawn viewership. Now, with Pulisic’s move to England, they stand to gain from increased viewership, particularly of Chelsea games. NBC’s contract to broadcast the EPL in the US runs until 2022. Pulisic’s new contract with run until 2024.
The Premier League is currently the second most-watched soccer league in the US, only trailing Mexico’s Liga MX, and adding Pulisic could help to close that gap.
It’s too bad we’ll have to wait until August to see Pulisic make his Premier League debut, but he’ll be plenty busy in the meantime. Borussia Dortmund currently lead the Bundesliga by six points over Bayern Munich and have advanced to the knockout stage of the Champions League, where they’ll first face Tottenham in the round of 16. Then the US have the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer to contend with.
Nevertheless, through all of that there will be plenty of anticipation for this new chapter for Pulisic and a potential new chapter in American soccer.