Stages of development aren’t linear, and not every stage as you move along the line are pleasant. As the USMNT has more and more players making their mark in the biggest leagues in the world, one stage before they are main stars on the biggest teams is that they’re going to be shuffled around a bit until they, or the next generation, establishes themselves as indispensable.
Christian Pulisic, the U.S. captain and still probably its best player (certainly in attacking areas) is in the blender now.
Chelsea reportedly are set to bring in Raheem Sterling from Man City. It won’t be for pocket change, given Sterling is still only 27 (somehow) and highly effective. With the arrival of Erling Haaland at Eastlands, City don’t have much need for false nines anymore. Which means all the players who filled that role the past two seasons–Sterling, Phil Foden, Bernardo Silva, Jack Grealish just to name a few–are being shunted out to the wide forward positions, creating something of a logjam. Sterling has been falling down the depth chart for a couple seasons, though always seems to pop back into the lineup for their biggest games of the year. But he wasn’t set to have his contract renewed after this upcoming season, and City are cashing in before he leaves for free.
Sterling’s best position is from the left side of the front line, be it a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3. Which just so happens to be Pulisic’s best position. Whether or not Pulisic has been given a proper chance to lock down that spot in the first 11 permanently basically depends on whom you ask. He only made 13 starts in the Premier League last season, some of that due to health, but was available for far more. He made an additional four in the Champions League, and there are a fair few Chelsea fans who get crosseyed and turn purple when any mention of his miss in Madrid comes up. Wherever you sit, Pulisic’s attacking stat — shots per 90, shots on target per 90, goals per shot and such — ranked below most of Chelsea’s other attackers. And together, the Chelsea attack last year was seen as lacking the verve to keep up with City or Liverpool. It doesn’t add up to all that pleasant of a picture.
Whatever the excuse (the first one being Pulisic having trouble linking up with Romelu Lukaku early in the year just like everyone else did), it’s clear manager Thomas Tuchel doesn’t want to hear it. Not only is Sterling a day or two away from joining officially, but rumors have Chelsea also hot after either Leeds’s Raphina or Everton’s Richarlison. It’s clear that Tuchel wants more players resembling actual wingers, which Pulisic really isn’t. Pulisic has tried to be the good soldier in the past, playing wing-back or false nine when asked, but wasn’t terribly successful at either. He has his spot, and it appears that’s closing up for him to be anything more than a squad player.
Pulisic isn’t under as much pressure as some other Yanks who might not be playing regularly for their club. If he’s healthy, Pulisic will start in Qatar no matter how many minutes he racks up at the club level. But he’s not going to want to head to Qatar rusty and short of feel and fitness, which a player can only get through game time.
But moving to another club carries risk, too. He knows the manager at Chelsea, knows the tactics, knows his teammates, and even if his time on the field is limited, the fit is clear. None of those things are easily found somewhere else. Staying in England would almost certainly mean a step down. Does Pulisic want to take himself out of a Champions League club? Where would he go? Newcastle have a left-sided forward in Allan Saint-Maximin. West Ham are stocked up on that side too. He would actually be a perfect fit at Brighton, but can they afford his fee and wages? Would he even want to go there? Their style suits him down to the ground, but it’s hardly a Brighton-esque move.
Abroad has just as dicey options. He’s been mentioned as a makeweight in a deal for Juve’s Matthijs de Ligt, but that’s quite a needle to thread and Juve just want the cash (rumored to be over $100 million). There is a Pablo Dybala-shaped hole there now, but carving out a regular role in Turin is no easier than it is in West London. Lazio could probably use a left-sided attacker, but there’s been no mention of that. Again, Pulisic’s wages (rumored to be just shy of $10 million a year) and still significant transfer fee that Chelsea would want puts him out of the range of a lot of midrange Spanish and German clubs unless he wants to take a paycut.
Pulisic isn’t the only USMNT stalwart whose immediate future is a jumble. Tyler Adams could be on his way out of Leipzig. Sergino Dest is no lock to stay at Barcelona as they look for any way to shake some change loose to try and correct their tire-fire finances. Chris Richards, the most likely right now to partner Walker Zimmerman in central defense against Wales in the World Cup opener, is the subject of rampant transfer speculation. Looking around, it’s hard to know who exactly, among the locks to make the roster for Qatar, will be playing regularly. Jesus Ferreira in Dallas for sure. Brenden Arronson will certainly get a fair shot in Leeds with manager Jesse Marsch. Yunus Musah is likely to be a key cog for Valencia. Jedi Robinson for Fulham as they jump to the Premier League? Walker Zimmerman will play every game for Nashville, but that’s about it. The striker position is always a mess, so most of the spine of the U.S. could be in and out of lineups leading up to the tournament. Zack Steffen appears to be stepping down into the Championship with Middlesbrough to play regularly. What kind of prep the Championship is for the World Cup can be debated, but at least he’ll be playing and we’ll see him. Can we say the same for Matt Turner at Arsenal?
For the U.S., this is part of growing up.