At 25, the talented but inconsistent American is back to his former self, mixing a handful of great games with endless matches where he is a non-factor.
In one of the worst soccer matches you will ever watch, AC Milan somehow defeated Hellas Verona 1-0 at home on a rainy night in the San Siro. Rafael Leão’s goal will place a bandage over what was a miserable team performance by Milan, a week removed from being manhandled by Inter 5-1 in the Milan Derby and four days removed from what was an underwhelming 0-0 draw in their Champions League opening match against Newcastle United.
In the middle of it all was Christian Pulisic. By the looks of his numbers, no one can really complain — two goals in six matches — but the story is rather different. Pulisic was explosive in his debut match against Bologna, had a man of the match performance against Torino, and a healthy match against Roma. Then it all came apart.
Pulisic was a complete non-factor in the Derby della Madonnina, arriving after being absent for much of the United States men’s national team’s matches against Uzbekistan and Oman, and midweek against Newcastle a surprised benching saw him be lively against the Premier League side when he came in, but not being able to finish his two chances. Then over the weekend against Hellas Verona, Pulisic was dreadful.
The American lost or mis-passed every ball and was displaced from the ball at every turn. His lone highlight was a nice dribble in the Verona box that forced a save by goalkeeper Lorenzo Montipò. Visibly frustrated, he was substituted in the 80th minute and was consoled by manager Stefano Pioli, who could be the American’s saving grace. Pioli thinks highly of the U.S. winger, but he is on the hot seat himself. His Milan squad is not playing well, and he has lost in every competition imaginable to Inter Milan. Unless Pioli has the season of his career he, for all purposes, is a lame duck coach.
The Time is Now for Christian Pulisic
It’s not just another season for Pulisic. At 25 and now no longer cocooned with the label of a “young up-and-coming player,” Pulisic needs to live up to the hype of being one of the best players of his region.
The flashes are there: His World Cup goal, his highlight reel goal against Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinals, and a masterclass performance against Arsenal in the 2020 FA Cup Final. The question is can he keep it up for an entire season? So far, the answer has been no. Be it benchings or injuries, the American has never really been able to play top level consistent soccer for more than three months.
Unlike Chelsea, where Pulisic was just one of the boys, he has been marketed and presented as a major contributor for an at times overwhelmed Rafael Leão at AC Milan. He’s been billed as an answer of a top-quality supporting cast member. The Milan faithful were clearly frustrated with what was shown against Hellas Verona, with many pundits questioning if he can keep up with the type of marking in Serie A.
ESPN Argentina’s long time Serie A analyst Vito De Palma has been quick to point out that AC Milan will need a lot from Pulisic in order to become an alternative for Leão, otherwise most if not all of Milan’s attack will go through the left, and that is not what Pulisic was brought in to do. The expectation was for him to be a long-term solution, not a highlight player in a handful of matches.
It is very clear by Pioli’s tactical approach that Pulisic must become the answer for AC Milan on the right. So far there are major concerns if that will occur with Pulisic, who is still getting the benefit of the doubt in Italy.
From afar, this season is huge for Pulisic, now entering the prime years of his career. The dread is beginning to settle in that these types of matches are the talented American’s ceiling. When he was at Dortmund, the excuse was that he was a youngster. At Chelsea he was injured, played out of position, or so down the pecking order that he wasn’t getting consistent minutes. It has been harder for pundits and fans to grab hold that Pulisic has always been inconsistent, even from his days at Borussia Dortmund.
Be that as it may, this season Pulisic must look like a dominating player for himself to show that he can reach his potential or the potential placed upon him. Americans have been waiting four years now for that breakout season that has yet to come.
Pulisic is Just One of Many
For a nation that fancies itself as a team that will make a lot of noise at the 2026 World Cup because of a “golden generation” of players, when one looks at the USMNT’s team sheet you would think there is a lot going on. Indeed, American soccer players are playing at clubs they never thought they would ever play for, but when you take a closer look, their contributions at those clubs are average.
Gio Reyna, like Pulisic has had moments of magic, but injuries and coaching decisions have seen him out of Dortmund’s lineup consistently as well.
Sergiño Dest seems to have finally found a home at PSV after missteps at Barcelona and AC Milan. Weston McKennie has been a solid contributor for Juventus, but is only as good as his supporting cast, and Tim Weah is another player who has loads of potential but seems always reduced to a substitute’s role.
RICARDO PEPI ROUNDS THE KEEPER TO MAKE IT 4-0 FOR PSV! https://t.co/WOAyCER6jJ
— USMNT Only (@usmntonly) September 23, 2023
Up front, the U.S. has something to hope for. Ricardo Pepi shook off a horrible run in Germany by becoming a consistent goal scorer in the Netherlands and now at PSV, and Folarin Balogun is the great hope of a world class American striker.
The rest, no matter where they play, are supporting cast members. When one thinks of the golden generation, the state of the backbone of the USMNT is not very golden. At similar points in their careers, Portugal’s golden generation were world stars outright. Rui Costa was one of Serie A’s best creative midfielders, Luis Figo and Fernando Couto were two of the best at their respective positions, Pauleta was lighting it up in France, and Nuno Gomes was contributing at Fiorentina.
The thing with that golden generation of Portugues players is, they only went to one World Cup out of three possible, and despite being individually very talented, collectively they never gelled.
For a fanbase so obsessed over where their American players play, the reality is just being at a big club doesn’t mean you are world class or will elevate the nation to feats never achieved.
When the biggest USMNT name in the sport struggles almost on a yearly basis, it’s hard to sell the world that the United States is on the cusp of doing something truly incredible.
For Pulisic, we’re back to basics, demanding consistency where there has never been consistency before. Hopefully he will surprise us all, but the great hope of U.S. Soccer continues to be just that: faith, and hope.