The start of the European soccer season is always anticipated by American fans, but this year’s kickoff is one of the most anticipated ever.
Christian Pulisic, the Hershey native who as a 20-year-old is already one of the biggest stars in U.S. men’s national team history, is expected to debut for English superpower Chelsea on Sunday as the Premier League kicks off.
And it’s not just any opening game. The London-based Blues start their season by playing Manchester United at Old Trafford, the 76,000-seat soccer shrine long known as “the Theater of Dreams.” NBCSN and Telemundo will televise the game at 11:30 a.m., as part of NBC’s perennially vast coverage of the Premier League.
Though United aren’t the juggernaut on the field that they used to be, they’re still England’s most glamorous club. To have two of the Premier League’s biggest teams clash on opening weekend only makes the spotlight brighter.
Pulisic has already been in the spotlight for some time. In 2016, he made his debuts for the senior national team and German club Borussia Dortmund. By the middle of 2017, he was a centerpiece player for his country and his club. But just as his star was set to rise to even greater heights, the national team crashed by failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.
Fortunately, Pulisic kept playing well for Dortmund, and European teams were smart enough to know that the national team’s sins weren’t his fault. Some of the continent’s top clubs scouted him, and this past January, Chelsea bid $73 million — by far the most ever paid for an American. It was a friendly offer, too, allowing Pulisic to stay in Germany for the rest of the season. Dortmund accepted it.
Pulisic has played in a few of Chelsea’s preseason friendlies. He made a big impression in a July 31 game against Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg, scoring two goals and winning a penalty kick.
Now it’s time for him to finally take the big stage.
The Premier League has seen plenty of Americans over the years, including some with high profiles: Tim Howard at Manchester United, Claudio Reyna and DaMarcus Beasley at Manchester City, Clint Dempsey and Kasey Keller at Tottenham Hotspur. But there’s never been the combination of player, club, and hype like that of Pulisic, Chelsea, and the Premier League’s all-time high profile in the United States.
“This is the biggest transaction in American soccer history, capable of having the largest impact that any player move has ever had,” said Kyle Martino, the NBC Sports studio analyst who played for the national team and was the Union’s color commentator in 2010. “No American player has faced the size of expectation that that is there for Christian Pulisic this season."
The big fee obviously is a factor in that expectation. Nothing fuels hype in global soccer more than a big club writing a big check for a big player. And there’s a widespread sense that Chelsea spent so much because it knew it would make some of it back in jersey sales here. But Pulisic’s pedigree is real, and NBC play-by-play announcer Arlo White believes that mattered most in the deal.
“I honestly, truthfully believe that this is a serious signing by Chelsea, and they want him to excel on the field,” said White, who will call Sunday’s game on NBCSN. “The byproduct of which they’ll sell lots of shirts in America, it’ll be fantastic, and they’ll gain a huge fan base. But it will make them essentially a better team, and I think that’s the core reason for the signing.”
Indeed, Pulisic delivered for Dortmund in the Bundesliga and the UEFA Champions League. He played against big teams like Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Tottenham, and played well.
But the Premier League is its own beast, defined by a pace and physicality unlike those of any other league in the world. Not every star from other European leagues succeeds there. Will Pulisic? Martino thinks so.
“Christian Pulisic was bought for a record fee for an American because he already is one of the best players we’ve ever produced, on track to maybe be the best ever," said Martino, who will be an analyst Sunday from a set on the field.
“I know Christian is good enough to not only succeed at Chelsea long-term but start right away. And whether he does or not, it’s not going to change what I think of him as a player, it may just change the trajectory of a player that’s on the highest path that you can be on — and [is] approaching a height that American players haven’t reached before."
While Pulisic’s debut has gotten a lot of hype in the U.S., it hasn’t been talked about much in England. That’s chiefly because Chelsea was banned from buying new players this summer after breaking rules about transfers of minors. All the attention has naturally gone to teams that have made moves.
Plenty of attention will be paid this weekend, especially because of Chelsea’s new manager: club legend Frank Lampard. The word from London is that Lampard likes what he sees in Pulisic. And the coach knows a few things about the American mentality, having played for New York City FC in 2015 and 2016.
“The message appears to be, I want you making runs in behind — like, by the way, [Lampard] used to do,” White said. “He’s got the best, arguably in Premier League history, midfielder who breaks from the center of the park and scores goals. For [Lampard] to talk in such glowing terms of [Pulisic] immediately getting what Lampard wants? I would say that bodes very well."