Christian Pulisic, Set to Lead USMNT at World Cup, Counts the Minutes at Chelsea

LONDON — The players bounced on their toes, the ball was placed on the spot, and Christian Pulisic eased into what has become his regular position for Chelsea these days: a seat.

It was a good seat, to be fair, in the second row of the Chelsea dugout, with a perfect view of Chelsea’s showdown with Arsenal. But it was not anything close to where Christian Pulisic wants to be. Not on Sunday, not ever — and definitely not two weeks before the start of his first World Cup.

Pulisic, 24, remains the brightest star on a young United States team hoping to make waves at the World Cup in Qatar. But at Chelsea, he is what the British refer to as surplus to requirements: something extra, something nice to have, sure, but not something a club in transition seems to need.

That is a professional problem for Pulisic, a Champions League winner who can still, in his brief flashes of playing time, change Chelsea’s attack, change games, change outcomes. Sorting that problem out, however, appears to be out of his hands: Chelsea is reportedly considering offloading him to Italy in the January transfer window, and Manager Graham Potter, who replaced the fired Thomas Tuchel in September, currently has much bigger crises on his hands.

“My focus is on Chelsea,” Potter said last month when he was asked about players like Pulisic and others who might be agitating for bigger roles and more consistent playing time in the lead-up to the World Cup. “I understand that all players have ambition and want to play for different reasons, for their families, careers or World Cups. That’s all fine. But it’s my job to select the right team for whatever game.”

Potter praised Pulisic’s work in training. The player, who had fumed about his treatment by Tuchel in a book published this fall, said he was eager for a “fresh start” under Potter. The manager said he just “needs to be ready.” Yet little about his diminished role has changed.

The current state of affairs, though, is not just a Pulisic problem. It is unclear what his infrequent appearances could mean later this month for his national team, which plays its first match in the World Cup two weeks from Monday. Pulisic has started only three Premier League games for Chelsea this season, and only two in the last nine weeks. He has scored only one goal.

That is not what anyone would describe as an ideal situation for a player who sees himself as a difference-maker, nor is it the perfect recipe for sharpness ahead of the biggest tournament of his life. But his uncertain status is also not that unusual for a United States team wrestling with more than a few unknowns.

At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, for example, Pulisic’s seat was about 20 feet from the one occupied by goalkeeper Matt Turner, the projected U.S. starter in Qatar. Turner has played even less than Pulisic since his move to England over the summer, and with Aaron Ramsdale entrenched in the starting job and Arsenal on top of the Premier League, Turner cannot reasonably expect to get on the field again in the league before he arrives at the World Cup.

“It was a risk to go from being a shoo-in starter to a place where I wasn’t guaranteed to be a regular starter, but it felt like a necessary risk that I had to take,” Turner said after a recent (rare) start in the Europa League.

The list of worries doesn’t end there. Midfielder Weston McKennie is out at least two weeks with a thigh injury. Left back Antonee Robinson missed most of September with an ankle injury and hinted recently that, while he is back in the starting lineup at Fulham, he is still not 100 percent. Defender Sergiño Dest has been mostly a reserve after his move to A.C. Milan, and Gio Reyna and Timothy Weah have proved fragile throughout their careers. But they, at least, are playing meaningful minutes these days.

The concerns are the same on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. Walker Zimmerman, a near-certain starter at the center of the U.S. defense, will have gone more than a month between his last competitive match and the World Cup opener. Defender DeAndre Yedlin is looking at about the same gap after his Inter Miami was eliminated early in Major League Soccer’s playoffs.

To keep his idle (and healthy) M.L.S.-based players occupied, U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter recently held a conditioning camp in Texas, an effort to try and maintain something resembling sharpness ahead of the announcement of his final roster on Wednesday. While the camp may have been useful, it was hardly an atmosphere to rival the pressure of a World Cup, which, one must remember, will be a first-time experience for nearly every member of his young United States team.

Pulisic, then, may be more fortunate than the rest. He is not injured. He has played in high-stakes games before. He gets high-level training every week at Chelsea. And Potter has not forgotten him completely: He gave him a start in a Champions League game two weeks ago, and rewarded him days later with another one in a loss at Brighton.

In Chelsea’s next game, however, Pulisic was back on the bench. Sunday brought another day spent watching and waiting.

Pulisic spent the game’s first hour hunkered down with his coat zipped up over his chin. By the 60th minute he was up on the touchline, leisurely going through a light warm-up, casting an occasional glance at the game and up the line at Potter.

The call came in the 78th minute, when Potter offered a quick word in his ear and a sharp clap on the shoulder, and Pulisic sprinted on as a replacement for Mason Mount.

The game, unfortunately, was effectively over. Arsenal, clearly superior all day, had scored the only goal off a corner kick 15 minutes earlier, and Chelsea, which never looked like a threat to win, went meekly from there. When the final whistle blew, Pulisic stood like a statue, hands on his hips, all alone near midfield.

He stayed there for about 30 seconds, motionless, before walking over to shake the referee’s hand. Then he turned purposely and strode, stone-faced and without breaking stride, directly down the tunnel. Another 90 minutes of frustration. Another day lost. Another day closer to Qatar.

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