Milan’s Christian Pulisic begins life after Chelsea on Italian club’s US tour

Before “the symbol of American soccer”, as one Italian sportswriter called him, ever donned AC Milan’s jersey for a match, Christian Pulisic made a tremendous impact for his new club.

Sales at AC Milan’s team store rose by 266% once the 24-year-old native of Hershey, Pennsylvania, signed his four-year contract worth up to $24.2 million. Pulisic’s jersey accounted for 45% of all jerseys sold, with Americans representing 43% of total sales, compared to just 9% last year.

“I’ve seen a lot of Milan jerseys across the US,” Pulisic said. “There’s a lot of support. I remember growing up from a young, young age having Italians on our team. They were the biggest AC Milan fans in the world. They would always talk about it.”

Related: Christian Pulisic poised to leave Chelsea for Milan in £18.8m transfer

But Pulisic and AC Milan plan on far more than selling jerseys. The Rossoneri signed him to bolster their Champions League hopes and to recover from last season’s fourth-place finish in Serie A. The young midfielder, meanwhile, seeks to reinvigorate his club career following a lost season at Chelsea.

Pulisic dressed for only 29 of the Blues’ 50 games last season and played in just 24, making a mere eight starts. While trying to recover from a knee injury that sidelined him for two months, Pulisic had to impress the four managers who guided the club.

“It was a difficult last few seasons with Chelsea, I think,” he said. “For whatever reason, I wasn’t getting all the opportunities I wanted in my previous club. In spurts, I think I had some good moments that I was definitely proud of. I just didn’t find that consistency that I wanted over the long period of time.

“Now I have a great opportunity to reach the highest level that I can, and hopefully be back to where I want to be and take it to another level. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I want to bring to this club.”

In Stefano Pioli, AC Milan’s manager, Pulisic found a kindred spirit who appreciates and encourages the midfielder’s style.

“I spoke with Pioli and I really felt like they wanted me,” Pulisic said. “I felt like I was wanted here to play in an attacking role, to be very aggressive, to be very direct and bring what I can to help his team create chances to score goals – and that’s what I’m here to do.”

Pioli, for his part, wants his new American midfielder to play a pivotal role.

“He’s a flexible and very intelligent player,” Pioli said. “He can play on the left, on the right or as a number 10. He can make an impact from both sides or even from behind the center-forward. That will give us more options this season.”

Such versatility can prove decisive in the manager’s offensive approach.

“We’re trying to build our play by looking to read the spaces left by our opposition, whether it be wide or inside or from another opponent,” Pioli said. “We’re trying to vary our play to be able to dominate the game a little more. With his quality, he certainly will be very useful in our attack.”

But that role will demand high standards.

“Christian is a great player,” Pioli said. “I expect a lot from him. I expect quality. I expect personality. I expect a presence on the field, which he is already showing us in training every day.”

In his first match for his new club, Pulisic exploited poor marking to get two shots on goal and two assists in the first 16 minutes of a 45-minute scrimmage against FC Lumenazze SSD, promoted this season to Serie C, Italy’s third tier. For his second assist, Pulisic, stationed at the left boundary of the goalkeeper’s box, volleyed a ball from the midfield to Tommaso Pobega for a goal.

“For me, it was great,” Pulisic said. “I had a lot of opportunities to run at the defenders with the ball, and that’s what I like to do.”

Milan’s Christian Pulisic runs into the arm of Juventus defender Gleison Bremer during a preseason friendly at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.

Milan’s Christian Pulisic runs into the arm of Juventus defender Gleison Bremer during a preseason friendly at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. Photograph: Frederic J Brown/AFP/Getty Images

But in his first match against a major side – a 23 July friendly against Real Madrid at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California – Pulisic endured tighter, more physical marking and saw little of the ball while playing on the left flank. Nevertheless, his corner kick from the left side enabled Fikayo Tomori to score on a four-yard header.

“You saw flashes of moments where he can change the game and make the difference in the team,” Tomori said. “He’s really integrating well.”

Pulisic then experienced his first taste of Serie A competition on 27 July against Juventus in another friendly. Playing as a forward on the right side with Rafael Leao on the left, Pulisic became more involved, allowing fans to see his aggressiveness and speed.

In one bit of agile intensity, Pulisic lost the ball on Danilo’s slide tackle while being double marked but won the ball back seconds later from Brazil’s World Cup veteran. The young American also played a major role in one of Milan’s goals.

Theo Hernandez tapped a short corner from the right side to Pulisic, who crossed it to Malick Thiaw in the penalty area, who headed it to Olivier Giroud, who volleyed it into the net from five yards.

But Pulisic also suffered a hard foul from Manuel Locatelli, who received a yellow card as a result.

“Serie A is a league that is very difficult,” said Tomori, entering his third season with Milan after transferring from Chelsea in 2021. “So many teams are fighting every week to win. At the end of the season, it’s so difficult, it’s so tight.

“This is different to England in terms of intensity, in terms of the tactical element and the details in certain aspects of the game. It’s a lot different and in some ways more difficult than the Premier League. You have to learn and adapt. I know once he does that, then he’ll have a rather different arrow in his bow to use.”

Besides Tomori and Pulisic, Milan’s contingent of refugees from Chelsea includes forward Giroud and midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who joined the Rossoneri in June, like Pulisic.

“You know, when the coaches yell something in Italian, we can just look at each other and laugh a bit,” Pulisic said about Loftus-Cheek. “So it’s good to have somebody else in the same boat as you. Being quite close with some of those guys definitely helps the transition into the club.”

Once Milan’s tour of the United States ends Tuesday night against Barcelona in suburban Las Vegas, Pulisic has three weeks to prepare for his first Serie A match: on 21 August at Bologna. The young American makes his home debut five days later against Torino, then will experience his first derby match against Inter on 18 September – two days after his 25th birthday.

“My birthday is the Inter game? Perfect,” he said with a smile on his face. “Well, obviously, I think you already know what would be the best gift for me, a big derby win. Scoring a goal, of course, is the main thing. That’s the first time I’m hearing that, so that’s going to be an exciting birthday for me, for sure.”

In the midst of his excitement, Pulisic maintains a sense of wonder about the course of his career after he joined Borussia Dortmund’s under-17 squad in 2015.

“To imagine I’d be signing for a massive club like Milan is truly an honor for me,” he said. “It was my dream, playing professional soccer in Europe. But I never imagined I would have come this far when I was a younger kid. I never could have believed it. I was watching games when I was just a kid with my dad.”

That perspective includes wistfulness about his hometown, America’s chocolate capital, and its amusement park.

“I think about Hershey a lot, to be honest,” Pulisic said. “I hope I can get back. It’s been a couple years since I’ve been to Hershey Park. I’d love to return sometime.”

But with Serie A beginning in less than a month, nostalgia will have to wait.

“I’ve seen firsthand how good he is,” Tomori said. “We need him to be his confident self.”

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