Early afternoon at Stamford Bridge and the man who could yet prove to be the only new face in Chelsea ranks next season was still pinching himself to be here at all. Christian Pulisic has had six months to contemplate life in the Premier League, having pushed to see out the season in fruitless pursuit of the Bundesliga title with Borussia Dortmund. “I’m still trying to take it all in,” he said. “It’s been a huge dream of mine, to play here in England. So to be here is incredible.”
Pulisic’s arrival is one of the few certainties at a club in flux. The likelihood is he will never play alongside Eden Hazard, a player vigorously courted by Real Madrid and with a parting of the ways seeming inevitable. Doubt persists, too, over the identity of the head coach. Maurizio Sarri has secured Champions League football and steered the team into next week’s Europa League final, but it says everything about his uneasy relationship with club and support that should Juventus offer to buy out his contract Chelsea’s resistance may be perfunctory.
Then there is Fifa’s two-window transfer ban, a sanction the club have yet to raise with the court of arbitration for sport as they continue to await the written reasons for the rejection of their original appeal by the governing body. There remains the possibility that Mateo Kovacic’s loan move from Real Madrid is made permanent and there will be a flurry of loan returns. But Pulisic’s arrival, for £58m, may provide the only injection of new blood to a collective who, perhaps optimistically, still aspire to shatter Manchester City’s domestic dominance.
Not that the 20-year-old American is daunted by what lies ahead. A few days observing training at Cobham, and speaking with Sarri, have strengthened belief that his decision to move to London was sound. “There’s no doubt City had a great season, but Chelsea … there’s a champion mentality at this club,” he said. “They are a confident group of guys who understand we have a long way to go, but we have a great squad already and everyone wants to take the steps so we can compete right away.
“It’s the next challenge I want to take on. I was 15 when I moved to Dortmund. I knew that move wasn’t going to be easy, and the first two years in Germany were very tough for me: a foreign country, a new language, being away from my family and friends … I thought people were looking at me, asking: ‘Who is this American trying to take my spot?’
“I was playing in the youth team and hadn’t ‘made it’. Everything was in front of me. It was a tough time, but I wanted it. My life was soccer. I knew that if I stuck at it and proved I was good enough it would all work out. If they see you can play, they respect you.”
That will be the challenge, too, at Chelsea. The kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania who was schooled under Jürgen Klopp, Thomas Tuchel, Hannes Wolf and Lucien Favre has long endured life as the poster boy of the USA national team and a wunderkind at Dortmund when he made more than 70 Bundesliga appearances in his teens. At Stamford Bridge, some have already earmarked him as Hazard’s successor elect, despite their playing styles hardly standing comparison.
Pulisic may spend time on the wing in Chelsea blue, but he may be happier as a No 10. He had been asked by the club’s website whom he was most looking forward to playing alongside and omitted Hazard from a list that included N’Golo Kanté, Antonio Rüdiger and David Luiz. He seemed rather taken aback that people read plenty into what was apparently an inadvertent oversight. Such is the rather febrile atmosphere at the club.
The hope is that by the time he returns from the summer’s Concacaf Gold Cup – he will report back late for pre‑season – the lie of the land will be clearer.
“Eden’s a fantastic player, we all know that,” he said. “If I can get anywhere close to him, I’ll be more than happy. But I’m coming in to be my own man. I try not to allow pressure from the outside to affect me. I put enough pressure on myself to be good, to be great. That’s how I’ve always been. It’s quite easy to avoid the outside pressure. You just zone it out. I focus on what I can do.”
Pulisic is unfamiliar with the capital, despite visiting with his father, Mark, 12 years ago to take in a Chelsea game – vague memories linger of a Didier Drogba penalty – for all that this will not be the first English club for whom he has featured. As an eight-year-old he spent a year living in the Oxfordshire village of Tackley and played for Brackley Town’s youth team.
“I remember playing in these little tournaments and we would play an absurd amount of games in a short amount of time,” he said. “I remember winning a few, and once being awarded the MVP trophy … I was so proud of it, my biggest accomplishment. When I was little, if I didn’t get a trophy, I was mad.”
There, at least, he will definitely fit in at Stamford Bridge.