There’s a word Christian Pulisic reaches for instinctively when contemplating Saturday’s FA Cup Final: redemption.
Chelsea will contest the Wembley showpiece against Leicester City — stream LIVE on ESPN, May 15, 12:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+ — a little over nine months on from losing last season’s rescheduled final to Arsenal, a match in which Pulisic scored, got injured and ended with a runners-up medal as the Gunners won 2-1.
“I’ve watched a bit of [that final again], yes,” he tells ESPN in this exclusive interview. “It was a game where we obviously started strong, we were able to get ahead but unfortunately it wasn’t our day in the end.
“Obviously the injury was very tough for me. But I am feeling good. I’m excited to kind of get some redemption and win it this year.”
Going one step further and winning the competition would represent a landmark moment in the U.S. international’s career, becoming only the third American of the modern era after Carli Lloyd (Manchester City, 2017) and Tim Howard (Manchester United, 2004) to win the world’s oldest club cup competition, which was first contested in 1872. (You have to go back to 1873 for the very first American: Julian Sturgis, a poet and novelist who claimed the trophyhen amateur side Wanderers FC defeated Oxford University 2-0.) It would also help provide a positive conclusion to a difficult campaign featuring more than the usual amount of turbulence, even at Stamford Bridge, and one for Pulisic with roots dating back to last season’s final.
Pulisic had put Chelsea in front with a smartly taken goal before sustaining a painful hamstring injury while racing towards Arsenal’s penalty area in search of another. His cry of pain was there for all to hear, but he continued on a couple of strides before trying in vain to shoot.
“I knew pretty much that I’d done my hamstring as I was running, but I did everything I could to try to do to get a shot off. In the end I just couldn’t physically do it,” he explained. “It was a big game, so I had to give it everything.”
Pulisic was carried off and although that moment marked the end of his final, it was merely the beginning of his problems. Last season’s game had been moved to Aug. 1 as a result of delays arising from the first wave of the coronavirus across the United Kingdom. A condensed summer break followed, but Pulisic was denied of even the shorter break his teammates were afforded.
“I was doing rehab the whole time. I was able to get away for a couple of days, but it was a quick turnaround because the season was delayed a bit,” he said.
The 2020-21 season began on Sept. 12, but it was almost a month before Pulisic made his first appearance of the campaign, with head coach Frank Lampard admitting the club were still searching for the right training regimen to ensure the winger could be available on a consistent basis.
Medical reports around Pulisic were often mixed during that span. The forward had not suffered a fresh injury, but he felt muscular tightness on more than one occasion, with doctors advising he was at risk of aggravating the original hamstring issue. The man himself admits he was pushing too hard.
“I was battling. I wanted to be ready as soon as possible at the start of the season,” he said. “I wanted to go right away. In hindsight, I guess I could have taken my time a little bit more but that’s just kind of the attitude I always have: I want to be playing.
“I always want to get myself into a position where I am fit and ready to go in every game.”
That battle took on a different dimension when Lampard was sacked in January, with Chelsea languishing in ninth place in the Premier League. Within 24 hours, Thomas Tuchel arrived on an 18-month contract to become the club’s 13th different permanent manager since owner Roman Abramovich acquired the Blues in 2003.
Pulisic appeared to have something of an advantage given he worked under Tuchel as a teenager, winning the DFB-Pokal together in 2016. He was an unused substitute as Dortmund beat Bayern Munich on penalties, but Pulisic had already signposted his potential: in April that year, he scored his first Bundesliga goal in a 3-0 win over Hamburg, becoming the fourth youngest goalscorer (aged 17 years and 212 days) in the competition’s history.
Tuchel left Dortmund a year later and spent two years in charge of Paris Saint-Germain before being reunited with Pulisic, who joined Chelsea in 2019 for £57.6m.
“There’s a lot of things I’ve learned, a lot of experiences I have taken from that time, so I think he has come in and probably seen a much different player, hopefully much improved,” said Pulisic.
“I’ve worked on everything. Physically I’ve grown, I’m a bit stronger. I work on that a lot and all in all, decision-making, attacking-wise, everything — finishing, passing — all the skills that help me dribble past opponents and things like that.
“Obviously it’s nice that [Tuchel] knows me from beforehand. [But] I wouldn’t say it was a massive advantage.”
If anything, Pulisic had to prove himself all over again. Tuchel has been in charge for 26 games, with Pulisic starting 11 of them. In a rare show of verbal emotion, he admitted to feeling “very frustrated” at being dropped for the Champions League semifinal, second leg clash against Real Madrid, having scored in the reverse fixture to give the Blues a precious away goal.
Yet Pulisic insisted he has no desire to seek a move, as has been speculated in some quarters, vowing “I’m always up for a challenge. I love competing, I love the position I’m in and I’m enjoying my time here,” but it is fair to point out Tuchel’s system has asked fresh questions of his role. Predominantly used as a winger under Lampard — and in that guise, one of the Premier League’s top performers during Project Restart, the coda to the 2019-20 season — Pulisic now plays a more central role in Tuchel’s 3-4-2-1 system.
Christian Pulisic sits down with ESPN to discuss how things have changed at Chelsea since Thomas Tuchel replaced Frank Lampard.
“It is a different position, but I’m used to it,” he said. “It is a bit of a different system, different line-up, the way the attacking midfielders are slightly more central with the wing-backs getting forward. But similar ideas, attacking, there’s no exact way to say ‘you have to do this.’ You have to instinctively make decisions and be creative and change things up. That’s always the same.”
And, of course, all this has taken place against the backdrop of a nationwide lockdown, the third of its kind in the UK. Pulisic lives alone in Wimbledon, away from his family and hometown of Hershey, Pennsylvania. He talks regularly to his friends using the Houseparty app, listens to music ranging from rap to country and seeks solace in religion — a cross given to him by his mother ranks among his prized possessions — but it’s perhaps easy to forget the highly unusual circumstances in which Pulisic has had to try and settle in a new country. Earlier this season he was found to still have American dollars in his wallet.
“It has been very tough,” he said. “With COVID-19, being in a foreign country by myself, it is never easy, but luckily I have my teammates that I get to see every day, of course. I am good friends with them. But I’m definitely excited for things to slowly improve, and I can maybe get out and actually enjoy London for once. I feel like ever since I’ve been here, most of it has been in lockdown or with some restrictions.
“It has been a while [since I’ve seen family]. My Mum has been able to visit. My parents try to visit when they can, when everything is possible. I am really excited for this summer to get to see most of my family for the first time for a while.”
Although he’s coy over the details, Pulisic is hopeful at least one family member will be able to attend the final, with Wembley set to host 21,000 fans as the world returns to normal. Leicester beat Chelsea 2-0 on Jan. 19 — the penultimate game before Lampard was axed — but Chelsea will start this weekend as favourites having won 17 of their 26 matches under Tuchel, a run that also includes a remarkable 18 clean sheets.
“He has brought a lot of structure to our team, defensively especially,” said Pulisic of Tuchel. “We are definitely very solid. I think that’s been our main thing. Offensively as well, we have a lot of options. We kind of understand the system and the positions we are all supposed to play and that’s really the difference.”
They have a Champions League Final against Manchester City and a scramble to stay in the Premier League’s top four to come, but first there is the chance to right the FA Cup wrongs of last year.
Pulisic puts it like this: “Any time you’re in a final, you want to win it regardless of what’s happened before but I definitely want to finish on the right end this year.”