Welcome to Yahoo Soccer’s Premier League Starting XI. This lineup of stories will get you ready for the upcoming season as we count down to kickoff on Friday.
For American fans of the English Premier League, this season has a little bit of extra spice. A United States-born field player — Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic — will for the first time ever head into the new campaign as a surefire starter for a top-end club in the world’s most popular circuit. Better yet, from the looks of things so far, it appears he is up to the challenge.
When we first learned last January that Pulisic would be leaving German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund for the biggest stage in the club game, the move was met with tempered enthusiasm. Sure, the $73 million price tag that almost tripled the previous record for a U.S. national teamer and spoke to how highly the 20-year-old attacker was regarded by one of the game’s richest teams.
This was Chelsea, though, where current superstars like Mohamed Salah and Kevin De Bruyne were chewed up and spit out before their talent was nurtured by Liverpool and Manchester City, where they blossomed into world-class attackers. It was fair to wonder how much Pulisic would actually play at Stamford Bridge.
So when then-Blues manager Maurizio Sarri said he didn’t know the club was about to complete the deal for Pulisic — a quote was both taken out of context and lost in translation — the idea that Chelsea might not be the best fit for The Great American Hope took hold. Seven months later, though, those fears appear overblown.
While success for the basketball-loving Pulisic isn’t a slam dunk, he seems significantly better positioned to do well immediately than he did when he first signed. Sarri is gone, having been replaced by club legend Frank Lampard. Lampard may have just one season on the sidelines under his belt — he led second-tier Derby County to the brink of Premier League promotion in May — but he’s probably a better fit for Pulisic than the 60-year-old Italian. Lampard’s first language obviously is English, and the former star midfielder, who retired just three years ago, knows from personal experience the pressure Pulisic will face coming of age under the bright lights of the British game.
Plus, Lampard seems to like him. Pulisic endeared himself to his new boss immediately by cutting short his post-Gold Cup vacation to join up with the team in Asia. Lampard rewarded him by starting the Hershey, Pennsylvania native in all but one of Chelsea’s preseason matches, including its last four. Pulisic has played well, too, scoring his first two goals and adding an assist for his new club in last week’s friendly win over Austria’s Red Bull Salzburg.
At this point, it’s clear that Pulisic will be in the starting lineup when Chelsea kicks off its 2019-20 campaign on Sunday in the highest-profile fashion possible: a trip to 76,000-seat Old Trafford to face Manchester United, the team Pulisic grew up idolizing an ocean away.
It should go without saying that both Lampard and Chelsea’s demanding fans will insist on production from the start. But this move has been a long time coming for Pulisic, who will celebrate his 21st birthday next month. He knows what’s expected. He always wanted to play in England, to return to the country where he spent a year of his life as a boy thanks to his father’s job.
The change of scenery appears to have energized him so far. Pulisic’s early performances suggest a player determined to prove he can excel in the sport’s most cutthroat circuit. He’s been playing as a left forward, a position he excelled at in Dortmund. And even if it does take Pulisic a few months to fully settle, a FIFA transfer ban confirmed in May will prevent the club from simply replacing him midseason.
Sure, constant comparisons to longtime Blues playmaker Eden Hazard, who left the club for Real Madrid this summer, are inevitable. And Stamford Bridge, despite Russian owner Roman Abramovich’s endless supply of cash, remains a famously dysfunctional place. Things can always go sideways.
Based on how the stars are aligning, though, Pulisic could well excel with the Blues.
Yahoo Soccer’s Premier League XI