Christian Pulisic's final chance: USMNT star must shine for AC Milan to keep top-tier European career going

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Christian Pulisic AC Milan 2023-24
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The American star has found a good landing spot in Serie A, but what he makes of this big move will be a key part of his legacy

It wasn't supposed to end this way for Christian Pulisic and Chelsea. He arrived from Borussia Dortmund as a young prodigy with a hefty pricetag, a game-changing American with the ability to shift the balance on the field. And for years, he showed glimpses of that ability, but only glimpses. Injuries, form, managerial changes, whatever... Pulisic's time at Chelsea never got close to taking off in the way all involved hoped.

Now, despite earning Champions League and Club World Cup winners medals in Chelsea blue, he leaves with his reputation somewhat lessened. Gone is the leeway given to young stars; Pulisic is now a fully-fledged senior player graded on the same scale as everyone else. He won't be given a failing grade for his time in London, but he certainly didn't pass with flying colors.

He leaves this summer in a move that felt like a long time coming. As he heads to Milan, Pulisic has become Serie A's latest Chelsea reclamation project, the latest in a long line of players to depart Stamford Bridge in search of stardom elsewhere.

What makes Pulisic's move different from, say, Mohamed Salah's or Kevin De Bruyne's, is that the American has not taken a step back to take two steps forward. He has stayed amongst the elite, joining a club that will be competing at an even higher level than Chelsea next season. One could even argue he's fallen upwards by leaving one megaclub for one even more historic.

Make no mistake, though, he won't get this chance again. Very rarely does a player command this type of move after such a turbulent few years. He has seemingly stumbled into an ideal situation, at least on the field, as he begins the most vital three-year stretch of his career.

Pulisic has secured his place among the elite once again, but the challenge is now to show that he deserves to remain there as he enters his prime.

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  1. A history of Chelsea exits

    A history of Chelsea exits

    Make no mistake: there's no shame in failing at Chelsea. And, as we've said, it can be argued that Pulisic never truly failed, as the odds were certainly stacked against him and many other Chelsea players due to the club's turbulence over the last three years or so.

    Back to the point, though: some of the world's biggest stars have used a Chelsea setback as rocket fuel. De Bruyne, Salah, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, Daniel Sturridge Romelu Lukaku... the list goes on. All left Chelsea in search of brighter days, and all found them elsewhere.

    De Bruyne famously became a star at Wolfsburg, while Salah went to Fiorentina and Roma before becoming an icon at Liverpool. Lukaku went to West Brom, Everton, Manchester United and, most notably, Inter before completing the circle with a Chelsea return, a decision he no doubt regrets these days. Abraham is now a star at Roma, funnily enough under ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, while Sturridge shone under ex-Chelsea coach Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool before injuries took their toll. And then there's Tomori, a player that, like Pulisic, moved to Milan, albeit a much different version of that club than the Serie A contenders we see now.

    But those are the success stories, the ones everyone on social media turn to to mock Chelsea's transfer dealings. There have been players, too, who never took off after Chelsea cut bait; they just aren't talked about as much.

    Unlike Pulisic, though, all of those players listed above took something of a tumble down the ladder to build themselves back up. Now, Milan's status in the world game is arguable, as the money and power of the Premier League do put clubs like Chelsea in a different bracket. Still, the fact is that Milan are in the Champions League in 2023-24 and Chelsea are not, and that has to mean something right?

    There is a pathway for Pulisic to follow, and there's reason to believe that life after Chelsea will, in fact, be better for him. His time in west London was arguably more turbulent than the one the players above played in, and that really is saying something. Still, those players all seized their opportunities, moving to the right clubs at the right time. All signs point to Milan being just that for Pulisic.

  2. Entering his prime
    (C)Getty images

    Entering his prime

    You can divide Pulisic's career so far into two eras: The Dortmund era and the Chelsea era. At Dortmund, Pulisic burst onto the scene as a young teenage prodigy before, at Chelsea, evolving from teenager to young man to USMNT leader.

    Now, comes the Milan era. At 24, Pulisic is entering his prime years. He is set to sign a deal through to 2027, which means he'll likely have only one more big contract in Europe if he sees this one out. Of course, the hope is that he will see it out, becoming a Milan star before signing one more mega-deal to take him through the tail end of his prime. But that's the hope, and the reality is that it may not go that way.

    If this does go sideways, not even a downward spiral but sideways, this will almost certainly be the last mega-club willing to take a chance on Pulisic. Sure, a return to Germany could be in the cards, but it would be hard to see a true title contender really taking a chance on a player that didn't work out at two of the world's elite.

    Milan, right now, are betting on Pulisic's potential, not necessarily the player he is right now. They are hoping to squeeze out signifcantly more than what Chelsea got out of him. Getting the same Pulisic Chelsea had would undoubtedly be a failure for Milan. If he sees this out and emerges as a 28-year-old winger playing at the same level he has been for the past few years, the biggest clubs in Europe will have passed him by.

    And, to be fair, there would be no shame in that. Since his arrival on the scene, American fans have wanted and hoped for Pulisic to be the USMNT's first true world-class star, and the reality is that he may not quite reach that level. He may end up just being a very, very good player capable of playing at a good club in a big league. That should still be a success story.

    But there is still the belief that Pulisic can and will prove that he shouldn't be judged by Chelsea failures. Pulisic himself will certainly believe that he was held back by his environment and, unlike most players, he'll have a point. Some of the most important years of his career were defined by chaos out of his control, from managerial changes to the coronavirus to Roman Abramovich's sale and Todd Boehly's free-spending arrival.

    All of those are in the past, of course, but there is still one factor out of Pulisic's control that will almost certainly determine whether his career takes off in Milan.

  3. Those damn injuries

    Those damn injuries

    When Pulisic did get time at Chelsea, he usually looked pretty good. He had good stretches, notably under Frank Lampard. It wasn't all perfect, of course, as his form was never consistent enough to warrant a prolonged starting spot, but there were flashes, for sure.

    The problem was that every time those flashes threatened to turn into something more, injuries struck. Pulisic always felt one step behind the rest of the team, with a new manager seemingly always coming in to find the American rehabbing his latest issue.

    In total, Pulisic missed 55 games due to injury across his four-year Chelsea spell. That's nearly 14 games per season out of the lineup. Only twice in those four years did he reach the 1,710-minute mark, good for half of a Premier League season. This past campaign, he played just 812 minutes.

    They say the best ability is availability and, throughout his Chelsea career, Pulisic was rarely available at the right times. Much of that is down to bad luck, but the unfortunate part is that it's hard for players to shake off that 'injury-prone' label.

    It's the tough part of this business, but it is a fact of life. For Pulisic to succeed at Milan, he has to avoid the injuries that plagued him at Chelsea. Will playing in a less-physical league help that? Possibly, but he'll also need a bit more luck than what he's had.

    Should the injuries pile up again, though, the label will be tossed next to his name and, once that's there, most big teams are unwilling to look past it.

  4. The looming World Cup

    The looming World Cup

    In any scenario, this move has massive stakes for Pulisic. It's his chance to prove himself in a new league with a historic club. Even with just that part of it, there's so much to be motivated by. But this transfer, like all moves Americans are making this summer, is also defined by the looming 2026 World Cup, which is no doubt in the back of every USMNT players' mind in everything they do.

    That World Cup, that home-soil tournament, will be revolutionary for American soccer. Pulisic, as the face of the team, will look at that moment as a chance to solidify his legacy. He's already among the USMNT's all-time greats at just 24 but, by the time that tournament comes to an end, there's a chance that Pulisic will have ended any debate for good.

    Still, though, he has to make it there. He also has to get there confident and in good form. Every U.S. player is building themselves towards that moment, either consciously or subconsciously, and every move will have that tournament hanging over it.

    It's now just three years away, a short time in the soccer world. Much can change in three years, of course, and there will be plenty of twists and turns heading toward it. Still, there's no time to waste.

    For Pulisic, there isn't time to stand still. Three years from now, he'll be at the center of the World Cup in his home country. He can't really afford to waste a year or two at Milan before making a pre-2026 Hail Mary move.

  5. An MLS fallback?
    USA Today

    An MLS fallback?

    Landon Donovan earned some Twitter mockery with his comments about Pulisic, but it is true that Pulisic, unlike most other players in Europe, will always have a pretty comfortable, and pretty lucrative, fallback option. Pulisic's move to Milan has generally earned praise from American media and pundits, but, speaking on Fox Sports, Donovan said he'd wished Pulisic took a different path.

    “The World Cup is coming in three years. This is once in a lifetime," Donovan said. "He’s going to be in the prime of his career, his life as a soccer player, his earning potential — I’m sure he’s making plenty of money — but the ability to come to MLS kind of like [Lionel] Messi did. I’m not so sure that wasn’t a big reason for Messi, the World Cup coming here.

    “I think it would have been a great move… for the Galaxy to go out and get Christian. Bring him here, pay whatever you have to pay him. Bring an American superstar who has global recognition back to MLS ahead of the World Cup. I think it would have been a great move and I can hear the Twitterverse going crazy.”

    Pulisic, of course, will hope to remain in Milan for quite a while. And, at least thus far, he's never expressed interest in leaving Europe behind any time soon. Still, it is a nice back-up plan, isn't it? Pulisic would no doubt be a huge star in MLS, and he'd be paid like one. Players like Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley were all lured by the opportunity to come home and make a heck of a living, while Donovan never truly left while making his name as arguably the best American player we've seen.

    Maybe someday Pulisic returns home, either as a conquering hero after getting it right in Serie A or in need of a fresh start after being unable to take that next step. But that opportunity will always be there, which isn't the worst thing.

  6. The road ahead

    The road ahead

    Pulisic will likely be thrown right into the fire at Milan, a club that can certainly use a player of his ability. Unlike Chelsea, where Pulisic was one piece in a seemingly-endless attacking puzzle, the American will almost certainlybe a key figure at Milan, a club looking to build on their recent success.

    The Rossoneri will have title hopes, no doubt, having lifted the Scudetto two seasons ago. They reached the Champions League semi-finals last season, too, and, despite the loss of a midfield star in Sandro Tonali, they'll hope to remain among the contenders in that competition. The signing of Pulisic is one of their big moves to ensure that fact. It's an important deal for the club, for sure.

    Perhaps what Pulisic needed most is a chance to be a key figure, not one on the periphery. He's always dazzled for the USMNT, regardless of his club situation. Maybe, just maybe, Milan is the perfect blend of a big club and an opportunity for Pulisic to be a big fish.

    There aren't many other clubs that could offer this type of opportunity, which is why Pulisic was so quick to jump at it. He has bet on himself with this move, and Milan has certainly bet on him, too. It doesn't look like a bad bet.

    Pulisic's legacy may end up being determined by this move. If he thrives, he'll have made his case as probably the best American soccer player so far. If he falters, the public will start looking for the next guy that could potentially truly earn the world-class label.