An American in the big time at last

Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic is the most expensive American player in history after Chelsea paid £58 million for his services.
Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic is the most expensive American player in history after Chelsea paid £58 million for his services.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • For some 25 years, American players have been carving out a modest presence overseas.

Many have been goalkeepers and defensive types. Some have arrived with scoring portfolios forged in Major League Soccer. Several were dual nationals, born and trained abroad.

Intra-European transfers involving king's ransoms and glamorous suitors were reserved for the likes of David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar; for Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona; for Brazilians, Argentinians and Spaniards.

Certainly not for Americans.

Christian Pulisic, 20, busted that mould on Wednesday when English Premier League titans Chelsea signed him from Borussia Dortmund for £58 million (S$99.7 million).

The fee was more than three times the previous record for a US player - in May 2017, defender John Brooks left German club Hertha Berlin to sign for Wolfsburg for €20 million (S$31 million) - and around the 25th largest in the sport's history.

Pulisic will remain with Dortmund this season, then in August become the first high-profile American, not including goalkeepers, to suit up for an English heavyweight.

Brian McBride and Clint Dempsey did score goals for Fulham, but the Cottagers operate in the shadows of London brethren. Claudio Reyna and DaMarcus Beasley liked the ball at their feet. John Harkes played for trophies at Wembley. Tim Howard, Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel were world-class goalkeepers.

Pulisic has always been different. His electric skill set - initiated in Hershey, Pennsylvania, by parents who played at George Mason University and took him abroad in early 2015 - belies the reputation of Americans being hard workers, supporting actors and little else.

Amid gains in the sport since the late 1980s, the US has developed few creative male prospects suited for the world's brightest stages.

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In terms of dynamic attackers, the closest comparison to Pulisic was Landon Donovan. Their acceleration and confidence with the ball are eerily similar.

Donovan, however, spent the bulk of his decorated career in San Jose and Los Angeles before retiring last year, never making a European breakthrough despite opportunities in Germany and England.

As a teenager, Pulisic was starting regularly in the Bundesliga, which sits in the top tier of European circuits with the Premier League, Spain's LaLiga, Italy's Serie A and France's Ligue 1. Dortmund also typically qualify for the Champions League, the continent's elite club competition.

Given his high-level experience at such a young age, he was one of the top five transfer targets this winter despite his lessening role at Dortmund. Bumped from the line-up by English teenager Jadon Sancho, he has appeared in 11 of 17 league matches, starting five and scoring once. He has continued to start in the Champions League.

Given his profile and cost, the Blues, whose last of six English titles came in 2017, are almost sure of thrusting him into the line-up next summer. Beyond his contributions on the field, Chelsea are, no doubt, counting on a marketing bump. Through pre-season tours and TV exposure, European clubs have made great strides in recent years appealing to US audiences.

Given the historical England-US ties, and that NBC Sports' presentation of the EPL is akin to the National Football League which is still the most-watched sport, Chelsea are eyeing an uptick in exposure and jersey sales.

NBC is certainly thrilled about building coverage around an exciting US player. Two defenders and a defensive midfielder comprise the current US contingent in the EPL.

Pulisic's move is also seen as a victory for US men's football which, in the wake of the World Cup qualifying fiasco, has fallen off the radar and begun major renovations.

Before his transfer, Pulisic was already the centrepiece of the programme. Wearing Chelsea colours and competing in the sport's most popular league, he will soon inherit a role no American has ever taken.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 04, 2019, with the headline 'An American in the big time at last'. Print Edition | Subscribe