Before Christian Pulisic came off the bench with Chelsea trailing Aston Villa and immediately changed the momentum of Sunday’s 2-1 comeback win with a goal, a segment of American soccer fans was beside itself.
The reason? Pulisic, the 21-year-old U.S. national team headliner who’s in his first season in England’s vaunted Premier League, wasn’t in manager Frank Lampard’s lineup for Chelsea’s first match since the coronavirus pandemic put the Prem on pause more than three months ago.
Pulisic’s game-altering performance surely improved their moods, as well as his odds of featuring in Lampard’s starting 11 for Thursday’s stiffer test against Manchester City. In more ways than one, the timing of his goal couldn’t have been better.
Pulisic’s primal scream of a celebration afterward showed how much it mean to him personally as well as to his team:
The fact of the matter, however, is that fans of Pulisic and the USMNT had no real reason to worry to begin with. Not before the game. Not now.
Because while it’s true that Pulisic’s opportunities for playing time in London beyond this season have come under increased scrutiny lately — the imminent arrivals of striker Timo Werner from RB Leipzig and winger Hakim Ziyech from Ajax threaten to cut into Pulisic’s minutes — it was always probable that Pulisic would begin Sunday’s game on the bench.
When healthy, Pulisic has met or exceeded all reasonable expectations in his COVID-cursed rookie campaign in England. Since Chelsea dropped a cool $73 million on him in 2019, the former Borussia Dortmund prodigy has scored seven times in 17 appearances (12 starts) in the Prem. His goal and two assists in the Champions League group stage helped the Blues advance to the knockout round.
But Pulisic hasn’t been healthy consistently this season; before Saturday, a torn leg muscle had kept him out of Chelsea’s last 11 games across all competitions, including a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s Champions League round of 16 opener. (Another minor injury kept him out of a Champions League trip to French side Lille in October.) Before Lampard summoned him in 55th minute at Villa Park, Pulisic had not played at all since New Year’s Day.
Meantime, Chelsea had won three and drawn twice in six matches leading up the the mid-March stoppage. In their final outing before the health crisis hit, the Blues trounced Everton 4-0. As much as Project Restart feels like a new season, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that a coach would stick with the those who had been playing well back then. Indeed, seven of the players who started against Everton were also in Lampard’s lineup on Sunday.
The unplanned three-month pause in the Premier League schedule actually helped Pulisic in the sense that he was fully recovered when the action resumed. All of the world’s top teams have more elite, proven professionals on their books than positions in which to play them. Everyone can’t play all the time.
Take World Cup-winner Oliver Giroud, who didn’t even dress for 10 straight games at one point this season. Lampard still refused to sell him to Inter Milan in January in case he needed him later in the year. Giroud scored the winner on Saturday, his second goal in Chelsea’s last three games, all starts:
It’s now on young striker Tammy Abraham, who burst out the gates with 13 goals, to win back his spot from the veteran.
That’s how it goes at this level. It says plenty about how Pulisic is viewed at Chelsea that he was Lampard’s first option off the bench, along with Ross Barkley, and it says a lot about Pulisic’s growing maturity that it took him less than five minutes to repay his boss’ faith with a game-changing play. Christian Pulisic is going to be fine, folks. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.
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