Before Christian Pulisic came off the bench with Chelsea trailing 1-0 to relegation favorite Aston Villa and immediately changed the momentum of the Saturday match’s by scoring the crucial equalizing goal that sent the Blues toward a 2-1 comeback win, a segment of American soccer fans was beside themselves.
The reason? Pulisic, the 21-year-old U.S. national team headliner who is in his first season in England’s vaunted Premier League, wasn’t in manger Frank Lampard’s lineup for Chelsea’s first match since the coronavirus pandemic put the Prem on an indefinite pause more than three months ago.
Pulisic’s game-altering performance may have improved their moods, as well as his odds of featuring in Lampard’s starting 11 for Thursday’s significantly stiffer test against Manchester City. The timing of the goal couldn’t have been better. His primal scream of a celebration afterward showed how much it meant, to him as much as to his team:
But the truth is fans of Pulisic and the USMNT had no real reason to worry. Not now.
Because while it’s true that his prospects for playing time in London beyond this season had already become an increasing worry lately among more cynical supporters — the imminent arrival of widely coveted recruits Timo Werner from RB Leipzig and more specifically winger Hakim Ziyech from Ajax threatens to cut into the Hersey, Pennsylvania native’s minutes — it was always likely that Pulisic would begin Saturday’s game at Aston Villa on Lampard’s bench.
When healthy, Pulisic has met or exceeded all reasonable expectations in his Covid-cursed rookie campaign in England. Since Chelsea dropped a cool $73 million on him in 2019, the former Borussia Dortmund prodigy has scored seven times in 17 appearances (12 starts) in the Prem including Saturday’ match. His goal and two assists in the Champions League group stage helped the Blues advance to the knockout round.
But Pulisic hasn’t been healthy consistently this season; before Saturday’s match, a torn leg muscle had kept him out for Chelsea’s last 11 games across all competitions, including a 3-0 loss to Bayern Munich at Stamford Bridge in Chelsea’s Champions League round of 16 opener. (Another minor injury kept him out of a Champions League trip to French side Lille in October.) Before Lampard summoned him in 55th minute at Villa Park, Pulisic had not played since New Year’s Day.
Chelsea had gone 3W-1L-2T leading up the the mid-March stoppage. In their final outing before the health crisis hit, the Blues trounced Everton 4-0. As much as Project Restart feels like a new season, it shouldn’t have come as any surprise that a coach would stick with the those who had been playing well back then. (Seven of the players who started against Everton were in Lampard’s lineup Saturday.)
The unplanned three-month pause in the Premier League schedule actually helped Pulisic in the sense that he was fully recovered when the action resumed. Any top team has more elite, decorated professionals than spots to play them in. Not everyone can play all the time. World Cup-winner Oliver Giroud didn’t even dress for 10 straight games at one point this season, but Lampard refused to sell him to Inter Milan in January in case he needed him later in the year. Giroud scored the winner on Saturday, his second goal in Chelsea’s last three games, all starts. It’s now on young striker Tammy Abraham, who burst out the gates with 13 goals, to win back his spot.
It says plenty about how Pulisic is viewed at Chelsea that he was Lampard’s first option off the bench, along with Ross Barkley. And it says a lot about Pulisic’s growing maturity that it took him less than five minutes to repay his boss’ faith. He’s fine, folks. Just sit back and enjoy the ride.