The biggest moment in Christian Pulisic’s career is here.
This is his chance to deliver on years of fanfare as the face of American soccer.
A chance to take the starring role in a rising, largely young US team at his first World Cup; to remind Chelsea supporters — as well as followers of potentially interested clubs — of the talent that earned him such status in the first place.
Opportunities to do that for Chelsea this season have been thin on the ground.
Pulisic ranks 18th in the squad for minutes played across all competitions with 616 and has started just five of their 21 matches. That puts him on course for his most peripheral campaign at club level since he broke into the Borussia Dortmund team as a 16-year-old in 2015-16, starting four games and played 436 minutes.
Those numbers are even more startling when you consider he has been relatively free of injury.
The Athletic has been watching Pulisic closely. Since the season began in August, in preparation for this World Cup, we have been collating observations of his matchday experiences regardless of whether or not he made it onto the pitch.
What follows is an eye-witness account of the final months on his dramatic and often frustrating road to Qatar 2022.
August 6 — Everton 0-1 Chelsea
Pulisic’s feeling over the summer was that his career would be best served by leaving Chelsea. That feeling is reinforced on the Premier League’s opening weekend at Goodison Park, when he is named on the bench.
Head coach Thomas Tuchel favours marquee summer signing Raheem Sterling to join Kai Havertz and Mason Mount as his starting front three but replaces the latter with Pulisic in the 65th minute. The American is lively and aggressive on the ball, running at Everton players and forcing them to commit fouls.
Off the ball he presses fiercely, remonstrating with referee Craig Pawson after one of his challenges is deemed a foul. In stoppage time, he dispossesses home goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, only for Mason Holgate to pull him back before he can shoot at the empty net.
At the final whistle he shares a brief smile and hug with Tuchel, followed by a cooler exchange with Everton boss Frank Lampard, who was his manager for his first season and a half at Chelsea before the German replaced him in January 2021.
He walks off the pitch stony-faced and later declines to stop to speak to the media in the mixed zone.
August 14 — Chelsea 2-2 Tottenham Hotspur
Tuchel sticks with his Sterling-Havertz-Mount attacking unit, again naming Pulisic among the substitutes. During the pre-game warm-up on the Stamford Bridge pitch the American sticks close to England left-back Ben Chilwell, one of his better friends in the squad.
It isn’t until the 85th minute that Tuchel turns to him, this time to replace Sterling as Chelsea try to see out a 2-1 win.
Pulisic gets minimal opportunities to impact proceedings on the ball, being credited with just one touch by statisticians Opta as the visitors push for an equaliser that comes in the sixth minute of added time. He even finds himself on the periphery of the aggravated mass of bodies that forms around Tuchel’s handshake confrontation with Antonio Conte at the final whistle.
He takes the earliest chance he can to walk impassively down the tunnel.
August 21 — Leeds United 3-0 Chelsea
A pattern is emerging: Sterling, Havertz and Mount start in attack again. Pulisic is among the substitutes again.
By the time he is introduced, alongside Hakim Ziyech, in the 64th minute, Chelsea are 2-0 down and in desperate need of a goal.
Pulisic and Ziyech are deployed as attacking midfielders in a wacky formation that seems to have no real central midfield. His first meaningful contribution is a decoy run to the right flank that creates space for Reece James to shoot from distance. Goalkeeper Illan Meslier tips it wide.
Again, Pulisic barely touches the ball before Leeds exploit the vast space between Chelsea’s lines to make it 3-0 through Jack Harrison with 20 minutes to go.
Most of his touches thereafter are in his own half. One attempt to connect with a cross forces home defender Pascal Struijk into a scrambling intervention.
August 27 — Chelsea 2-1 Leicester City
For the fourth successive match, Tuchel picks Sterling, Havertz and Mount to start, despite the fact they are all still searching for their first goal of the season.
Sterling gets his in this match, scoring twice to give Chelsea — down to 10 men after Conor Gallagher’s first-half red card — a narrow lead before making way for Pulisic in the 75th minute.
Most of the match bypasses the American, who registers just six touches and attempts only four passes.
After the match, he stops to chat to Chelsea’s new US co-owners Todd Boehly, Behdad Eghbali and Jose Feliciano in the Stamford Bridge tunnel area, flashing a rare smile.
The transfer deadline is five days away.
August 30 — Southampton 2-1 Chelsea
Tuchel finally switches up his attack, but it’s Ziyech who comes into the starting XI.
Pulisic is introduced in the 66th minute as part of a triple substitution with Chelsea 2-1 behind, huddling with fellow subs Chilwell and Armando Broja on the touchline as they receive their final instructions.
Deployed as a right wing-back in a 3-5-2, the American fluffs one chance to lead a counter-attack and commits a foul. In the 80th minute he picks up a booking after Adam Armstrong and Ibrahima Diallo work together to ease him off the ball, accepting the card without protest.
He beats Moussa Djenepo with some nice skill but squanders the advantage with a poor cross that is cleared, causing Tuchel to throw his arms up in frustration.
At the final whistle he briefly claps the travelling Chelsea supporters but is the first visiting player down the tunnel, drinking and then spitting out water as he goes. Footage of his swift exit circulates on social media, leading to heavy criticism.
The transfer window closes in just over 48 hours.
Christian Pulisic walked straight to the tunnel after Chelsea’s loss to Southampton today.
— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) August 30, 2022
September 3 — Chelsea 2-1 West Ham United
Still a Chelsea player with the window now closed, Pulisic is picked to start for the first time this season in a more experimental Tuchel attack deploying the American and Sterling as central attackers in a 3-5-2.
Much of his time is spent dropping deep to escape the West Ham centre-backs and link play, which he does reasonably well.
In the 11th minute, Pulisic darts into a good crossing position on the left and Kurt Zouma is forced to clear his delivery at the near post. His direct goal threat in the first half is limited to a quick shot from a deflected James cross, but later in the first half he spins neatly and finds Mateo Kovacic, who shoots wide from long range. A few minutes later, he bears down on goal himself after latching onto a neat Sterling pass, but Vladimir Coufal gets back to intervene before he can shoot.
Early in the second half his clipped crossfield pass sets up James, who skews a long-range shot wide. The same two players link up again shortly afterwards, but Pulisic is crowded out by West Ham defenders before he can convert a cutback.
He is substituted on the hour mark with the game still goalless to polite applause from Stamford Bridge. A big cheer greets the arrival of his replacement, Mount.
September 6 — Dinamo Zagreb 1-0 Chelsea
Back among the substitutes, Pulisic is first sent to warm up in the 20th minute with Chelsea a goal down in their Champions League group opener in Croatia. He watches the play unfold from the touchline alongside Broja and says something in the Albania international’s ear after their team-mate Kepa Arrizabalaga makes a save.
He also spends a chunk of the second half warming up, stopping to watch one Chelsea attack fizzle out against Dinamo’s massed defence.
Pulisic joins the action as Tuchel’s final substitution (and not just for this night) in the 75th minute, in place of Sterling, taking up a central attacking role in midfield. He wastes one chance with a heavy first touch that results in him getting tackled, then directs a header high and wide from a promising position in added time.
At the final whistle he kicks a ball away in frustration as he leaves the field, though he acknowledges the travelling Chelsea fans above the tunnel entrance.
September 14 — Chelsea 1-1 Red Bull Salzburg
A new head coach, but a familiar story. Graham Potter has replaced the sacked Tuchel and keeps Pulisic on the bench, favouring summer signing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in attack alongside Sterling and Havertz, with Mount deployed in midfield.
Even more galling for the American, he’s the last attacker among the subs to be called upon in the second half, replacing Sterling in the 84th minute with Broja and Ziyech already on the pitch. His introduction is met with a smattering of boos around Stamford Bridge, perhaps a response to serialised extracts from his forthcoming book that are critical of Tuchel.
He shows no outward sign of disillusionment and does reasonably well with his limited time, cutting in from the left and floating one cross onto the head of Ziyech at the back post, but he can’t conjure the win.
October 1 — Crystal Palace 1-2 Chelsea
Pulisic is well used to warming up with the other substitutes by now and seems to have developed a good rapport with Broja, talking to him during pre-match drills as Chelsea get back to work after the final pre-World Cup international break. He also appears in good spirits as he recognises someone in the Selhurst Park crowd and waves at them a few times.
Early in the second half, he shows his eagerness to get involved, interrupting his touchline exercises by running onto the pitch to collect a loose ball.
He finally comes on for Mount in the 84th minute to play on the left of a front three. His first notable contribution is to lose the ball too easily to Joel Ward, but in the final minute of normal time he cuts in from the left, beats a man and rolls a ball to Gallagher, who lashes in the winning goal.
In the final seconds he drops back into defence to make a clearance, prompting applause from Potter.
October 5 — Chelsea 3-0 AC Milan
For the first time this season Pulisic is an unused substitute, playing no part in the most impressive performance of Potter’s early tenure.
October 8 — Chelsea 3-0 Wolves
Pulisic makes only his second start of the season and his first since Potter took over.
He looks particularly focused during warm-up, running back down the Stamford Bridge tunnel after his pre-match drills wearing a steely, intense gaze.
He is slow to get going once the match starts, however, giving the ball away, passing it out of play and overrunning a dribble. In the 21st minute, he is played into scoring position by Ruben Loftus-Cheek but blazes his shot over. Five minutes later, Havertz rounds the goalkeeper and finds him, but Pulisic is tackled and goes down seeking a penalty which isn’t awarded. Groans then ripple around Stamford Bridge as he heads an inviting Cesar Azpilicueta cross over the bar.
The mood shifts in the 32nd minute when he cuts in from the left and curls an excellent shot that Jose Sa has to scramble to tip over. Nine minutes into the second half, he exchanges passes with Mount and makes it 2-0 by dinking the ball delightfully over Sa with his left foot from a tight angle.
After scoring, he wheels away then slides on his knees in celebration. Broja, warming up nearby, is the first to congratulate him. All Pulisic’s team-mates appear genuinely happy for him.
He is substituted on 72 minutes but walks back onto the pitch at the final whistle with a big smile on his face, signalling to someone he knows in the crowd.
He also has positive words about Potter for BBC highlights show Match Of The Day: “We are getting used to the way he works and how we are functioning as a team. I think we look really strong in the attack but also a couple of clean sheets is really important for us. I like the way the team is working at the moment. It’s just about finding some consistency and just keep going.”
October 11 — AC Milan 0-2 Chelsea
Pulisic is back on the bench at San Siro despite his Wolves performance. He doesn’t come on.
October 16 — Aston Villa 0-2 Chelsea
Among the substitutes again, Pulisic shows no sign of disillusionment ahead of kick-off at Villa Park, sharing a laugh with fellow replacement Azpilicueta as they briefly get caught by the sprinklers.
He looks more sullen at full-time though, having not come on again. He trudges towards the tunnel still wearing his bib and with a coat draped over his arm.
October 19 — Brentford 0-0 Chelsea
He is not picked to start for a third successive match since Wolves.
He does however finds ways to amuse himself during the pre-match warm-up: exchanging passes with Mount, doing keepy-uppies with Mateo Kovacic, nutmegging youngster Carney Chukwuemeka twice during a rondo drill.
This time he does get on, in place of full-back Marc Cucurella in the 61st minute as Chelsea push for a breakthrough.
And he looks their likeliest route to a goal.
One sharp turn and spin infield enables him to find Havertz for a fierce shot that David Raya beats away. He plays a give-and-go with Sterling, evades Ben Mee and sends in a dangerous cross which Ethan Pinnock scrambles to clear. In the final 10 minutes, his goal-bound volley is blocked and he unleashes another hard shot that Raya does well to parry but Chelsea cannot make the breakthrough.
October 22 — Chelsea 1-1 Manchester United
He’s a substitute again, but Pulisic looks in reasonable spirits as he goes for a pre-match walk on the Stamford Bridge pitch with Chilwell, Chukwuemeka and Kovacic. He fully engages in a fun game of two-touch keepy-uppy, flicking Broja’s ears when the striker messes up. When it’s his turn, his team-mates mob him, flicking his ears and ruffling his hair.
Cheers greet his introduction in place of Aubameyang in the 74th minute, to play as one of two strikers in a 4-4-2 diamond formation. He wins the corner that leads to Jorginho’s penalty that puts Chelsea in front — one of only seven touches he gets in 16 minutes plus another six of added time.
Late on, he doesn’t get close enough to stop the Luke Shaw cross that leads to United’s dramatic equaliser.
October 25 – RB Salzburg 1-2 Chelsea
Potter picks him to start nominally as a right wing-back in Austria, though the idea is that he and Sterling on the left flank stay as high up the pitch as possible. The two switch sides on several occasions in the first half and it’s from the right that Pulisic makes his first notable contribution, showing hustle to win the ball back in the Salzburg penalty area from a Gallagher cross. He flicks the ball to Havertz and it eventually breaks to Kovacic, who scores.
Early in the second half he can’t get close enough to stop Maximilian Wober clipping in a brilliant cross from his flank for Junior Adamu to equalise.
However, his positional interchange with Gallagher on the right pays dividends as he drifts infield, keeps the ball under pressure and slips it to Havertz, who curls a brilliant shot into the top corner off the underside of the crossbar.
He leaves the field in the 75th minute without registering a shot attempt, but he should have scored with his last act, instead scuffing his finish from an inviting Havertz cutback.
October 29 – Brighton 4-1 Chelsea
Potter hands Pulisic his first Premier League start since Wolves three weeks earlier, reprising the nominal right wing-back role he played to good effect against Salzburg.
With his team falling behind early he fails to control a Kovacic through pass, then gives Solly March the chance to deliver a dangerous cross with a misdirected clearance. After wasting a big chance to equalise with a shanked rebound from a Gallagher shot, he puts his head in his hands and loudly shouts: “F—!”
Shortly before half-time he fails to track back and Moises Caicedo finds Pervis Estupinan, whose cross leads to a Trevoh Chalobah own goal.
Potter switches Pulisic to the left of a front three for the second half, then back to the right just after the hour mark — but not before the American runs over to him, thinking he’s being substituted. He eventually is replaced with Chelsea 3-1 down on 79 minutes.
In the 88th minute, a TV camera pans across the visiting bench and shows Pulisic sitting with his head in his hands.
November 2 – Chelsea 2-1 Dinamo Zagreb
Pulisic is named among the substitutes on a depleted bench.
When he comes on in the 83rd minute it’s to replace Sterling on the left wing. He immediately injects creative urgency into Chelsea’s play. His first pass slips Broja through down the right. His second sets up Gallagher for a fierce shot saved from a tight angle. He is fouled twice by Sadegh Moharrami, with the Iranian booked for the second offence.
In injury time he latches onto an incisive pass from Mount and crosses low for Gallagher, who shoots straight at Dominik Livakovic. As he walks off the pitch at full-time he shoots a knowing smile towards someone he recognises in the upper tier of the East Stand as if to say: ‘What more could I do?’
November 6 – Chelsea 0-1 Arsenal
Potter sticks to his Dinamo game plan from the start against Arsenal, again relegating Pulisic to the bench.
He eventually comes on for Mount on the left-wing in the 78th minute with the visitors firmly in control. He shows some passion by remonstrating with referee Michael Oliver after fouling Gabriel Jesus.
His influence is minimal; he touches the ball just five times.
November 9 – Manchester City 2-0 Chelsea
Pulisic is restored to the starting XI for Carabao Cup duty on the left of a three-man attack with Broja and Ziyech.
In the 13th minute he wastes Chelsea’s first big chance of the game, making a soft connection with Ziyech’s cross that deflects off a City defender and is comfortably saved by Stefan Ortega with his legs.
His running with and without the ball is dangerous though, and he takes up good positions to move his team forward. In the 24th minute he leads a rapid counter and uses youngster Lewis Hall as a decoy runner, cutting inside and curling a shot that Ortega tips wide.
Things get more difficult in the second half, with Pulisic repeatedly smothered and dispossessed as he tries to dribble. In the 80th minute Potter shifts him to left wing-back and shortly afterwards he rounds off a chaotic sequence by hammering a cross/shot into the net off Nathan Ake, only to be judged offside.
After the match, while holding the City shirt of former Dortmund team-mate Manuel Akanji, he reveals he will fly to join his US team-mates in Qatar the day after Chelsea’s match against Newcastle: “It’s good to get some minutes and I’m feeling really confident, really good going into the tournament,” he says.
November 12 – Newcastle 1-0 Chelsea
On the bench again, Pulisic comes on at half-time when Azpilicueta picks up a knock — but it is Gallagher, rather than him, who is moved to right wing-back. The American instead lines up for the second half on the left of the attack.
He initially struggles to impact the game and during a break in play just after the hour mark Potter calls him over and gives him further instructions. Shortly afterwards he latches onto a Kovacic pass and beats one man as he races into the box, only for Kieran Trippier to recover and dispossess him cleanly. Frustration builds and during a late break in play for a Newcastle substitution he throws his hands in the air and looks towards Potter on the bench.
He has a brief injury scare after taking a heavy challenge in injury time. Then things take a bizarre turn. Firstly, as Newcastle keep hold of the ball to delay a late Chelsea throw-in, referee Rob Jones bizarrely pushes Pulisic away as he tries to get to Sean Longstaff.
Perhaps this incident contributes to the heated scenes that follow the final whistle. He boots the ball away in anger, then runs over to involve himself in the tussling that surrounds an irate Havertz and Dan Burn.
The fourth official subsequently attempts to placate the American, but he looks far from impressed as he walks down the tunnel.
After the match, Newcastle goalkeeper Nick Pope has words of praise for the American who England will be pitted against in the World Cup group stage: “He is a top player,” says Pope. “Their national team has come a long way and he is very much a part of that. You see where their players are and a lot of them are in top clubs across Europe. It’s going to be a tough game and he is going to play a part in that.”
One potential positive of Pulisic’s relative lack of action for Chelsea this season — particularly in light of his injury history — is that, in contrast to most of the tournament’s biggest stars, he has not shouldered an onerous physical load in the lead-up to this tournament. “I feel great right now,” he said on Wednesday.
“I feel my form has actually been really good in recent weeks. I’ve gotten some games in, continuing to work there and prove myself there and honestly I feel really strong and very good and prepared going into this.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given how infrequently he has started, Pulisic also seems upbeat about the Potter era at Chelsea.
“He’s been good,” he said. “I think he’s come in and the way he’s worked with the players and communicated with the players has (been what’s) impressed me the most. I think we had a great start with him and then we’ve had some difficulties in the recent weeks, but I think he’s working through it and I think the guys have received quite well.”
Pulisic called American goalkeeper Gabriel Slonina a few days before the start of the season to welcome his countryman to Chelsea once his transfer from MLS was confirmed, adding that he would be happy to help the 18-year-old settle when he finally arrives in west London from Chicago Fire in January.
Whether or not Pulisic will remain at Stamford Bridge himself beyond the winter transfer window is an open question, but one thing is clear: as well as fulfilling a childhood dream, shining for the US at this World Cup could alter the trajectory of a relatively miserable season.
(Top photo: George Wood via Getty Images)