Christian Pulisic is back and he’s ready to win titles at Chelsea

One way to measure an athlete’s greatness is their ability to achieve something before anyone else does. Up to this point, American wunderkind Christian Pulisic has built his soccer career on a laundry list of firsts and superlatives:

  • Youngest player to captain the United States men’s national team (USMNT)
  • Youngest to win U.S. Soccer Male Player of the Year
  • Dortmund’s youngest player to score in the Champions League
  • Most expensive American transfer ever ($73 million)
  • Youngest hat-trick scorer in Chelsea history

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more sparkling resume for someone who’s barely a 22-year-old. The only knock on Pulisic is his health. As the adage goes, the best ability is availability, and the winger has missed significant time in 2020 due to a torn abductor muscle suffered in January, and most recently, a hamstring injury that kept him out of action for two months.

On Saturday, Captain America emerged from the shadows, making his long-awaited return in the 83rd minute of Chelsea’s 4-0 shellacking of Crystal Palace.

“I had a tough injury, and it was really hard to work to get back out there,” Pulisic revealed to CBS Sports over the phone. “I’m really excited I got some minutes before the break. Now I just wish we had a game sooner.”

If a series of superlatives have come to define his greatness, Pulisic’s ability to return from injury better and stronger than when he left — coupled with winning — are his next big tests. The new No. 10 has a legitimate opportunity to accomplish both, as he rejoins the Blues who at full strength (which we still have yet to see) are as dangerous as any club in Europe.

When asked to forecast if the 2020-21 season will include Premier League and Champions League titles, the typically modest CP10 responded confidently: “Absolutely. Why not? … We’re gonna compete hard to get those trophies.”

Heading into the October international break, CBS Sports chatted with Pulisic about his lofty goals for Chelsea, the USWNT’s bright future, Gio Reyna’s ceiling (or lack thereof) and wanting to accomplish something no American has. He also discussed his participation in Chipotle’s third annual Chipotle Challenger Series — a huge Fortnite tournament featuring pro, celebrity and amateur gamers.  

The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity and flow. 

CBS Sports: I think I speak for a lot of people when I say it was awesome seeing you return to the pitch [on Saturday]. I know you’ve been eager to play for a while. How did it feel being back out there?

Christian Pulisic: It felt great. I had another tough injury, and it was really hard work to get back out there. I’m really excited I got some minutes on Saturday before the break. Now I just wish we had a game sooner, to be honest. But at least I’ll get a little rest.

Take me to that moment before you subbed in during the 83rd minute. What were the thoughts going through your head?

CP: I was just really happy to make my season debut. It felt like a new beginning almost. A new number, a new season. Obviously there are a lot of new players, too. Just a really great feeling overall. 

The hamstring is still feeling good?

CP: Yeah, very good. I feel healthy and back to full strength.

So tell me a little bit about this Chipotle Challenger competition that went down last Thursday. I heard there was $30,000 at stake? And free burritos?

CP: [Laughs]. Yeah, the winner of this Fortnite competition got free burritos for a year, courtesy of Chipotle. It was a really cool event, a lot of fun. I got to play with two Fortnite professionals, and I know one of them personally. He’s a friend of mine, Bugha. So yeah, it was really exciting. Cool to see how they compete, for sure.

Right, you and Bugha [a Fortnite World Cup Champion] have played a lot of Fortnite together before, so I’d assume would make a pretty formidable pair. At least on paper. How did you guys do in the competition?

CP: We finished 17th out of 33 teams. Most of the teams were all professionals, so I think we did alright, me being a part of their team. Really it was more about the experience and we had a really good time.

Weston McKennie once attributed the U.S. men’s national team’s chemistry to playing lots of Fortnite together. What do you make of that assessment? 

CP: [Laughs]. He’s right, honestly. Definitely during training camps, we play Fortnite a lot during our down time. A lot of the guys play, which is always fun.

Who would you rank as the top-three Fortnite players on the USMNT squad?

CP: Top-three is tough. I’d definitely put myself in there. Christian Roldan is also really good. Weston is really good. Walker [Zimmerman]. Jordan Morris would definitely be up there. You asked for three, but there’s my top-five. 

Are you the best?

CP: Yeah, I’d give myself that title. Maybe Christian [Roldan], honestly. He’s been streaming a lot, and he’s really good at the game.

Speaking of the men’s national team, what does it mean to you to see American soccer players getting the types of opportunities they are to play for some big-time clubs in Europe? Like Weston with Juventus and Gio Reyna with your old squad Dortmund?

CP: It’s really exciting. I know everyone is saying that, but it really is. I don’t think we’ve ever had a lineup like this where you look around and see so many top American players playing for the biggest clubs in the world. It’s awesome to see. And it gets us excited to get back together and continue to develop that chemistry on our national team and see what we can accomplish together.

Touching on that chemistry, how frequently do you keep up with that community of American soccer players playing in Europe? What’s the group chat like?

CP: We definitely keep in touch. Obviously, I know some better than others. I’ve played with Weston and Tyler a lot, Josh [Sargent]. I stay in touch with those guys, try to game together. Do stuff like that. So that’s always fun. It’s cool because a lot of us have those relationships with each other, then when we get into camp and it’s almost normal. The more guys we can get into camps, especially these American guys playing with big European clubs, it’ll be really good. The chemistry will be there. We’ll just jell.

One of your new USMNT teammates, Gio Reyna, is following in your footsteps in a lot of ways. Highly talented American soccer player, signed by Dortmund as a teenager, tearing up the Bundesliga at 17. And he had a hat-trick of assists on Saturday. What do you see as Gio’s potential?

CP: He’s gotta keep proving himself. Dortmund is off to a great start and so is he. We want to see how he does, and we’re all excited to have him on the national team.

Seeing what you have from Gio, do you think he can be one of the best players in the world one day?

CP: I think for Gio, really, the sky’s the limit. He’s got a bright future ahead of him. But like I said, he’s still got a lot to prove to get to that point. Obviously, we see the potential right now and a lot of talent. So we’re really excited.

You once said the move to Germany was one of the toughest parts of your childhood. You didn’t speak the language, you didn’t know the culture, you were away from friends and family. What advice would you give to someone like Gio just knowing what you know now and living through that experience?

CP: The first year is very tough, but it’s so important to keep that ultimate goal in mind. Just keep going after that. That’s really what I did, even through the tough days. That’ll get you through, setting goals for yourself.

You’ve played for Chelsea for about a year now. From the outside looking in, it seems like a pretty hectic year on a few different levels, with the pandemic, the injuries. Reflecting back on it, how would you describe your first year with the club?

CP: A lot of ups and downs. It’s tough to describe with the pandemic and everything that hit. It seemed like a lot of things were changing all the time. Coming back from an [abductor] injury, I felt I had a new beginning and a really strong end to the season. So I was definitely proud with how I finished it off. 

But I think I just learned so much. Whether it was not being involved at the beginning as much — not playing as much — to getting into my role and finding my role on the team. I think I improved a lot. Just learned so much, so I’m really happy with where I stand now with the club. 

How has playing in the Premier League been different from the Bundesliga?

CP: I think there are definitely similarities and differences. I feel like I’ve grown in confidence and I’m more comfortable on a week-to-week basis. There are strong teams in both leagues. I wouldn’t put too much of a difference there. But I think schedule-wise as far as games coming back-to-back in the winter time, it’s a bit more difficult over here. As far as the league, I think they’re both really strong. I’m happy to be in the Premier League now. 

Last year, Chelsea’s M.O. was to focus on grooming young talent, yourself included. This year the club spent a lot of money to bring in some new players. What has the locker room vibe been like this year so far, and how does it compare or differ to last year?

CP: We’ve brought in more experienced players this year with some new signings, and I think we also have a great group of young guys. So I think it’s a really good mix. Last year was more of a transition year where obviously we couldn’t sign any new players, but we still had some of the guys who’d been there. 

What was great about last year is a lot of the young guys got a lot of experience. This year there’s definitely a boosted confidence, we’ve got an edge. We’re ready, we want to compete, and we want to win titles. 

With everyone healthy, do you feel that winning titles is a realistic expectation for Chelsea in the 2020-21 campaign?

CP: Chelsea is a club with a lot of history that always wants to compete and win titles. Our goal is to finish at the highest standing in the Premier League and win every trophy available. Champions League included. We’ve got a great group of guys, we’re going to compete, and we’re hungry to win titles.

So do you see winning the Premier League and winning the Champions League in your future?

CP: Absolutely. Why not? That’s right where we want to be. I think that’s realistic, and we’re gonna compete hard to get those trophies. [That’s where I expect us to be.]

Heading into this season, you were given the No. 10. You got to wear it Saturday. Obviously that’s a distinction held for some of the best players in the world. What did it mean to you to be given that jersey number?

CP: It meant a lot. It’s no secret that it’s been my favorite number. It’s the number I wanted to be. Now that Willian moved on this season, there was an opportunity there. I spoke with the club and everyone felt like I was ready for it, and I felt I was ready, and it’s a number I like. So it was a really proud moment for me last weekend to wear it for Chelsea for the first time. I’m really excited about it. I understand what it means and how much history it has — how many incredible players have worn it before me — but I see it as my favorite number. I just want to do well.

Does putting on that No. 10 jersey, just given that historical significance you talked about, and combining it with the fact you’re an American player playing in Europe, feel like it increases your pressure to perform at a high level?

CP: No, I don’t feel like the number is going to put extra pressure on me. I’ve been No. 10 for the national team for a while, as well. It’s not something I’m thinking about too much, especially while I’m playing. It’s a number on my shirt. Of course I want to perform, but I put pressure on myself for other reasons. I don’t feel like it’s adding any pressure.

You once said in a Players’ Tribune docu-series (‘Becoming The Franchise’) that you want to do something that no other American has done before. But I noticed you didn’t specify exactly what that something was. So I’m curious, what is that thing you want to achieve?

CP: I don’t think there’s just one thing I want to achieve. It’s more about wanting to be a leader and being someone to look up to. For all Americans. Just setting a path for future Americans to look up and say, “You know what, he did that. I can do it too.” 

In recent years, you’ve seen more Americans playing over in Europe and finding success here. And that’s really exciting to me because it feels like myself and a few other guys really started that trend for Americans to be successful over here. Now you see more and more of them trying to do it as well. So it’s just giving Americans someone to look up to, really.

So in the end, is it less about the material accolades for you? And more about being a leader?

CP: It’s definitely a combination of things. I will say it’s important for Americans to show not just that they can come over to Europe and be a player here, but also that they can play for big clubs and make an impact. And really that means winning trophies. That’s where we want to be. 

We talked about the men’s national team, such a talented young crop of players. You alluded to it, maybe some of the best the team has ever had with you, Weston, Gio, Tyler. How confident are you that the USMNT will not only qualify for the World Cup in 2022, but make noise in the tournament?

CP: I’m definitely confident, and I think we have a confident bunch of guys. We want to get there and have all of these guys you mentioned playing there together as much as we can before then, as well. Building up that chemistry is so important, finding how we’re best going to fit together. I think with the players we have, we’re really gonna surprise some people.

For years, U.S. soccer fans have been craving contention in big international tournaments, like the World Cup and the Olympics. Knowing that, and coming on the heels of the disappointment of the 2018 World Cup, what message would you give American fans who are hungry for that kind of success?

CP: I would say don’t overhype everyone, which has happened in the past. We definitely have a strong team, but I want to tell people to be patient. Let our team form a bit. And once the tournament comes, just know we’re going to give everything we have. We’re a hungry group of young players and we really want to be successful. We’re excited.

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