National Writer: Charles Boehm

Christian Pulisic finds USMNT refuge after "really tough season" at Chelsea

Pulisic USMNT

With a UEFA Champions League trophy and a long list of record achievements on his résumé, Christian Pulisic has attained lofty heights that few others have ever experienced. He’s also endured the corresponding low ebbs, as well as the hot spotlight powered by a voracious public appetite for updates about the most prominent US men’s player in the game.

That existence entails a particular need for emotional balance – and an information diet of sorts, particularly as rumors and reports swirl about his uncertain future at Chelsea FC.

“I definitely don't keep any social media on my phone anymore,” Pulisic told reporters on Monday in Carson, California on Monday, as the US men’s national team opened training camp ahead of next week’s Concacaf Nations League semifinal vs. Mexico. “So I probably don't see as much as you guys think I do.

“I don't know what's going on. Like, people will text me sometimes and be like, ‘Oh, you're going here?’ and I'll be like, I didn't even know that. So they know more than me a lot of the times.”

The former teenage prodigy paused for a beat, briefly rubbing his hands across his eyes at the end of a 20-minute press conference in which he was the center of attention as usual.

“But I'm good, man,” he added with a fleeting, disarming smile. “My family is healthy. I'm blessed.”

It was a subtle but revealing glimpse of Pulisic the human, a flash of the skinny kid from Hershey, Pennsylvania who soared to the top of the sport before he was old enough to legally buy a beer in his home country. The teammate sitting next to him interjected, just in case the mood needed lightening.

“We hang out sometimes, too. It's been really nice,” wisecracked goalkeeper Matt Turner, throwing an arm around Pulisic’s shoulders.

“I'm happy to be here with the boys, with Mattie,” concluded Pulisic. “I'm doing great. And I'm excited to play with these guys this week.”

Back in the USA

It seemed to confirm what new interim coach BJ Callaghan had said last week when unveiling his CNL roster: That the USMNT is more a refuge than a responsibility for the likes of Pulisic and Turner, who have learned that earning a place among Europe’s elite means living under a harsh, unrelenting microscope.

“A lot of them have come through some stressful seasons. But I can tell you when these guys get together,” said Callaghan, “they really enjoy their time together. This is almost an opportunity to give them a release, a place where it's safe for them to be themselves.

“They can get away from that pressure. They can enjoy themselves. They're back in the United States, enjoying all the things that they're used to. So for me, this is just an opportunity for them to put that aside, really focus on something that they're passionate about, which is the men’s national team.”

Pulisic concurred.

“Yeah, it’s exactly that. It's been a really tough season for me personally and for our team, of course, at club level,” he said of a 2022-23 campaign in which Chelsea welcomed new ownership in Todd Boehly, spent north of half a billion dollars on new signings, churned through four managers and finished a dismal 12th in the English Premier League.

“It's just about coming in here and yeah, having a fresh start and being able to be a part of a team that hopefully can come out and win some games,” continued Pulisic. “I'm really excited to be here and just to get some minutes on the field, and just get back to being that confident player that I know I can be. And just find my footing again and just enjoying the game, because it feels like it's been tough to do that lately.”

Chelsea future uncertain

Inevitably and understandably, Pulisic fielded several queries about his club future. He’s widely expected to leave Chelsea in search of more regular playing time, and the constant tumult at the London giants only makes it seem more likely that no one will stand in his way.

Then again, the Blues paid a lofty price for their American star four years ago, and new manager Mauricio Pochettino’s outlook on Pulisic is unclear, with an array of reports suggesting an array of outcomes in regards to his current place in the squad.

“It's been an interesting journey at club level for me. I had what I thought was a great couple of years, and the last couple of years just haven't gone at all how I’ve planned them to be,” said the attacker, who played less than a third of Chelsea’s available minutes last season, scoring just one goal and two assists.

“Right now my focus is obviously here with the national team… I'm just excited just to get back playing and just enjoy myself and do what I love to do out on the field. And from there this summer, obviously going to have to kind of see what happens. It's obviously very early. As of right now, I'm a Chelsea player and I plan to go back. But a lot of things can happen, a lot of things can change.”

In this context, discovering that the USMNT must move from one interim coach, Anthony Hudson, from former boss Gregg Berhalter’s staff to another on short notice is a surprise, though not an overly jarring one.

“Yeah, I’ve had quite a few managers in my time, so I’ve dealt with change,” said Pulisic. “BJ especially, he’s been a part of Gregg’s staff. We know him well, we know what he's all about. He's not going to come in and try to change everything.

“He’s going to come in, give some new ideas, give input and obviously make sure to run by everything with the team, with some of the leadership guys. We're going to be well prepared once the game comes around. It's not something that any of us have never seen before.”

That implicit endorsement of the incumbent methods, philosophies and culture installed by Berhalter was followed by a more explicit one when Pulisic was asked about the leader of the 2022 World Cup cycle, who nominally remains a candidate for the permanent coaching search currently being led by new U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker.

“Yeah, I think he is still considered, I think he should be considered,” said Pulisic of Berhalter. “He did a great job with the team, brought us a long way. I think a lot of people and a lot of guys in the team especially, would agree with that.”