Pulisic exclusive: U.S. star ready to help lead Chelsea to FA Cup glory

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There is an image that Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic recalls when he wants to escape the pressure and scrutiny that comes with being an American soccer player in the Premier League.

“Back home, especially, when I’m back on the farm with my sister, I watch her ride horses, kind of live a really simple life,” the Chelsea winger tells ESPN. “That’s just what I love to do.

“Football is always around me, but there are times when you can’t let it stress you out too much.”

Appropriately enough, Pulisic’s sister Devyn — or Dee Dee, to her friends — owns and runs a 13-acre farm called Tranquility Stables in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, a short 30-minute drive from the family’s hometown of Hershey. It is perhaps a result of growing up surrounded by this serenity that Pulisic is able to navigate the highs and lows of a tumultuous debut season in west London with such equanimity.

Pulisic bought the property for his sister, 17 months his senior, in a reciprocal show of support that emanates from his father, Mark and mother, Kelley. Both parents played football at George Mason University, enabling them to some extent to prepare their son for a journey that took him to Borussia Dortmund aged 15, continued with a £57.6 million move to Chelsea last summer and now, this Saturday, puts him on the brink of marking his first season in England with a major trophy as the Blues face Arsenal in the FA Cup Final. (Stream LIVE (U.S. only): 8/1, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

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Life for Pulisic in England began with daunting comparisons to Eden Hazard before Pulisic was even able to kick a ball for the club. Hazard departed for Real Madrid after seven years as the club’s talisman, dragging his team almost single-handedly to Europa League glory in his final match. Chelsea were unable to sign any other players, aside from making Mateo Kovacic‘s loan deal from Real Madrid permanent, due to a FIFA transfer ban and so the pressure on Pulisic to perform was immediate.

“It was definitely just noise,” he said of the Hazard link. “People love to make comparisons, they do it in all sports I think and that’s just how it is. I understand that, but never was I looking to compare myself to him or trying to bring what he had. I never really looked at it like that. I always just focused on myself, wanting to do my best because that’s what I’m here to do.

“I’ve definitely learned a lot — coming to a new league, a brand new team, a lot of things changed for me. I think I had a lot of stuff to overcome as well with an injury in the middle of it. Obviously COVID-19 changed a lot of things as well. To be here in this position after my first season, I think I can say I’m happy. I think I’ve come a long way.”

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Breaking down Pulisic’s first season in England

Although he made a promising full debut in August’s UEFA Super Cup defeat to Liverpool in Istanbul, Pulisic only started three of their opening nine Premier League games, as Lampard harboured concerns about the 21-year-old’s fitness levels despite joining up with the club earlier than expected last July, a week after the U.S. lost the Gold Cup final to Mexico. Pulisic seized his opportunity, however, in October, with a hat-trick against Burnley that triggered a run of 12 consecutive starts across all competitions. By the turn of the year, a groin problem halted his season and when he was close to a full recovery in March, the coronavirus pandemic reached England and shut the sport down.

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Christian Pulisic speaks exclusively to ESPN concerning Chelsea’s FA Cup final clash against Arsenal.

“Having a big injury was definitely tough for me,” he said. “I thought I was playing well and in good form. Obviously, that put a big stop on things at the time. When lockdown started, it gave me that extra time to really make sure I’m 100 percent fit, ready to go, and it put me on a level playing field when everyone was back because everyone hadn’t played for a while. It gave me a quick refresh and a chance to go again.”

Pulisic worked closely with Chelsea’s strength and conditioning coach Adam Burrows to improve his physicality for English football, while Lampard has spent time working with him on an individual basis, pinpointing specific runs from deep that would make him more effective. The impact of that work behind the scenes has been clear.

Since the restart, Pulisic has started eight of Chelsea’s 10 games — only missing the FA Cup semifinal against Manchester United and a starting role at Liverpool due to a minor injury — and played a pivotal role in the Blues securing Champions League qualification by finishing fourth in the Premier League. Preparations for next season have already begun, with Chelsea attempting to sign German playmaker Kai Havertz from Bayer Leverkusen in addition to new arrivals Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner, who are already training with the first-team group.

All three can operate in a variety of attacking positions. With Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Olivier Giroud among those vying for first-team minutes, it appeared at one stage that Pulisic faced a fight to form a key part of Lampard’s vision for the future, especially given Lampard regularly castigated his forwards for a lack of ruthlessness in front of goal.

“There have been a lot of occasions this year when we want to finish off games and that’s really important,” said Pulisic. “We’ve done a pretty good job of that lately and we want to keep that up. Bringing in guys with a lot of attacking ability is only going to help us.

“It is really exciting. I’m getting to train with those guys now, getting to know them. They are big players, they’ve proved that at their old clubs. It is going to be a really exciting year moving forward. Obviously we have a lot of options and a really strong team. We are looking forward to seeing what we can do next season.

“Any real attacking position, we are all used to. We have played in different spots. It is really important and it gives us different looks at times. Playing in different positions at times, I think that could be really effective.”

Before that, however, there’s a Wembley date against Arsenal to consider. The Blues have won the world’s oldest club knockout competition eight times and this is their third final in four years, having beaten Manchester United in 2018 but lost to the Gunners a year earlier. Although fans are prevented from attending due to COVID-19, the showpiece occasion will pull in a worldwide television audience in the hundreds of millions, including a growing following in America on ESPN+, hoping to celebrate the USMNT star lifting silverware. Typically, however, that level of hysteria washes over Pulisic.

“When I’m over here [in England], I don’t really feel like [a vanguard] at all,” he said. “Obviously I’m in a team with incredible players and in a league with huge names, huge players, so I don’t really think of that too much. I understand the standing I have in the U.S. and with the national team. That’s a different story, but it isn’t something I think about too much.

“I’m sure its grown a bit. The Premier League is the biggest league in the world. A lot of Americans follow it much more, so you could say that. When I’m in America, I kind of go off the grid and be with my family and friends.”

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In an exclusive with ESPN, Christian Pulisic opens up about comparisons to himself and Eden Hazard.

In normal times, Pulisic’s family would be among the 90,000 spectators at Wembley.

“I’m sure my family will be watching back home,” he added. “It is tough times, obviously. You’d love to have them there and fill out Wembley, but we’re going to do the best we can under the circumstances and they’ll definitely be watching and supporting.

“That’s the thing my family is the best at, never letting me get too low, never getting too high either. They are always there to talk to me and discuss things that aren’t about football as well. They are always there. They have been the best support system for me, coming up from when I first started in Dortmund and then being here so I am really thankful to have them.

“Wembley is a beautiful stadium. We’ve just played there and obviously without fans, it is going to be a little different but the feeling will be the same if we can get that trophy.

“We want to go out on a high.”

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