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Christian Pulisic, Set to Lead USMNT at World Cup, Counts the Minutes at Chelsea

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LONDON — The players bounced on their toes, the ball was placed on the spot, and Christian Pulisic eased into what has change into his regular position for Chelsea lately: a seat.

It was a great seat, to be fair, within the second row of the Chelsea dugout, with an ideal view of Chelsea’s showdown with Arsenal. Nevertheless it was nothing near where Christian Pulisic desires to be. Not on Sunday, not ever — and definitely not two weeks before the beginning of his first World Cup.

Pulisic, 24, stays the brightest star on a young United States team hoping to make waves on the World Cup in Qatar. But at Chelsea, he’s what the British seek advice from as surplus to requirements: something extra, something nice to have, sure, but not something a club in transition seems to want.

That may be a skilled problem for Pulisic, a Champions League winner who can still, in his temporary flashes of playing time, change Chelsea’s attack, change games, change outcomes. Sorting that problem out, nevertheless, appears to be out of his hands: Chelsea is reportedly considering offloading him to Italy within the January transfer window, and Manager Graham Potter, who replaced the fired Thomas Tuchel in September, currently has much greater crises on his hands.

“My focus is on Chelsea,” Potter said last month when he was asked about players like Pulisic and others who may be agitating for greater roles and more consistent playing time within the lead-up to the World Cup. “I understand that each one players have ambition and wish to play for various reasons, for his or her families, careers or World Cups. That’s all nice. Nevertheless it’s my job to pick the proper team for whatever game.”

Potter praised Pulisic’s work in training. The player, who had fumed about his treatment by Tuchel in a book published this fall, said he was looking forward to a “fresh start” under Potter. The manager said he just “must be ready.” Yet little about his diminished role has modified.

The present state of affairs, though, shouldn’t be only a Pulisic problem. It’s unclear what his infrequent appearances could mean later this month for his national team, which plays its first match within the World Cup two weeks from Monday. Pulisic has began only three Premier League games for Chelsea this season, and only two within the last nine weeks. He has scored just one goal.

That shouldn’t be what anyone would describe as an excellent situation for a player who sees himself as a difference-maker, neither is it the right recipe for sharpness ahead of the largest tournament of his life. But his uncertain status can be not that unusual for a United States team wrestling with greater than a couple of unknowns.

At Stamford Bridge on Sunday, for instance, Pulisic’s seat was about 20 feet from the one occupied by goalkeeper Matt Turner, the projected U.S. starter in Qatar. Turner has played even lower than Pulisic since his move to England over the summer, and with Aaron Ramsdale entrenched within the starting job and Arsenal on top of the Premier League, Turner cannot reasonably expect to get on the sector again within the league before he arrives on the World Cup.

“It was a risk to go from being a shoo-in starter to a spot where I wasn’t guaranteed to be a daily starter, but it surely felt like a essential risk that I needed to take,” Turner said after a recent (rare) start within the Europa League.

The list of worries doesn’t end there. Midfielder Weston McKennie is out not less than two weeks with a thigh injury. Left back Antonee Robinson missed most of September with an ankle injury and hinted recently that, while he’s back within the starting lineup at Fulham, he continues to be not 100%. Defender Sergiño Dest has been mostly a reserve after his move to A.C. Milan, and Gio Reyna and Timothy Weah have proved fragile throughout their careers. But they, not less than, are playing meaningful minutes lately.

The concerns are the identical on the U.S. side of the Atlantic. Walker Zimmerman, a near-certain starter at the middle of the U.S. defense, can have gone greater than a month between his last competitive match and the World Cup opener. Defender DeAndre Yedlin is in regards to the same gap after his Inter Miami was eliminated early in Major League Soccer’s playoffs.

To maintain his idle (and healthy) M.L.S.-based players occupied, U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter recently held a conditioning camp in Texas, an effort to try to maintain something resembling sharpness ahead of the announcement of his final roster on Wednesday. While the camp can have been useful, it was hardly an environment to rival the pressure of a World Cup, which, one must remember, will probably be a first-time experience for nearly every member of his young United States team.

Pulisic, then, could also be more fortunate than the remaining. He shouldn’t be injured. He has played in high-stakes games before. He gets high-level training every week at Chelsea. And Potter has not forgotten him completely: He gave him a start in a Champions League game two weeks ago, and rewarded him days later with one other one in a loss at Brighton.

In Chelsea’s next game, nevertheless, Pulisic was back on the bench. Sunday brought one other day spent watching and waiting.

Pulisic spent the sport’s first hour hunkered down together with his coat zipped up over his chin. By the sixtieth minute he was up on the touchline, leisurely going through a lightweight warm-up, casting an occasional glance at the sport and up the road at Potter.

The decision got here within the 78th minute, when Potter offered a fast word in his ear and a pointy clap on the shoulder, and Pulisic sprinted on as a substitute for Mason Mount.

The sport, unfortunately, was effectively over. Arsenal, clearly superior all day, had scored the one goal off a corner kick quarter-hour earlier, and Chelsea, which never looked like a threat to win, went meekly from there. When the ultimate whistle blew, Pulisic stood like a statue, hands on his hips, on their own near midfield.

He stayed there for about 30 seconds, motionless, before walking over to shake the referee’s hand. Then he turned purposely and strode, stone-faced and without breaking stride, directly down the tunnel. One other 90 minutes of frustration. One other day lost. One other day closer to Qatar.

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