Graham HunterSpanish writer9 minutes of reading
Christian Pulisic joins AC Milan still defying his Chelsea record and deeply frustrated by the lack of belief and adequate opportunities he has been given at Stamford Bridge, but ambitious and committed to winning Serie A and the Champions League with Rossoneri.
In an exclusive interview with ESPN at the club’s impressive headquarters, Pulisic, asked if he should have been given a fairer, regular chance to prove himself, said: “Of course there were definitely times when I wish I could have been given it. much more of an opportunity and been ‘that guy’ but that’s not the case. I’m hugely proud of what I achieved at Chelsea, winning big cup finals, being on the pitch and helping my team, the Champions League, Super Cup, everything.
“I think I had great moments at Chelsea. I learned a lot as a player and I grew a lot, but now I am absolutely ready for this brilliant challenge at AC Milan.
“I remember playing here at the San Siro in the Champions League (a 2-0 Chelsea win in October) and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing before the game even started when the fans were just singing and screaming. The atmosphere was absolutely electric. I had never experienced anything like it. I think AC Milan playing at San Siro can be the best place in the world when there is a big game.
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“I’m hugely excited now to be at home from the brilliant support and to be a part of all this. The Milanista fans have already been amazing, it’s unbelievable. Every place I’ve been there seems to be fans waiting out there; it just shows you the passion and the culture of this city and what this club means to them. They’ve definitely gone ‘above and beyond’ so far.”
The Rossoneri, who are about to celebrate their 125th anniversary, have won 18 FIFA and UEFA trophies, more than any other Italian club. Only Real Madrid has won more Champions Leagues than Milan.
Pulisic, 24, will become the first American-born man ever to start for this huge club, Champions League semi-finalists last season and Italian champions the season before. But his position is that opportunities in the immediate future far outweigh making history because of his unique status. He’s also crystal clear that working in the street-level, ultra-tactical Serie A will directly benefit the quality and maturity of his performances for the US men’s national team.
Pulisic, the player of the tournament when the USMNT won the Concacaf Nations League by beating Mexico 3-0 and Canada 2-0 in June, told ESPN: “I’m just proud to be an AC Milan player, it doesn’t matter. where I coming from or becoming unique This club has won titles throughout its history and while of course I’m keen to represent my country and be the first guy from the US to come here and make a big impact [Oguchi Onyewu came on for a 30-minute cameo in his single Milan appearance, and Netherlands-born Sergino Dest played intermittently on loan last season]the most important thing is that I’m here to help AC Milan keep winning trophies.
“As far as the US team is concerned, this experience is just a huge opportunity for me to learn and grow as a soccer player. Playing in a new league is a challenge that will test me.
“When the big international moments come, starting with next summer’s Copa America, I just want to be that much more seasoned. I see winning my place and performing well for AC Milan as a huge chance for me to really step up. and go to another level as a player.”
After brief Palm Beach vacations, life has become a maelstrom for the Hershey, Pennsylvania-born player. There will be training for the first time with (mostly) new team-mates under a coach eager to see his new signing in action. Then a tour of the USA, playing Real Madrid, Juventus and Barcelona in Los Angeles; Pasadena, California; and Las Vegas. Even the smell of the first Milan derby is only nine weeks away.
Fortunately, there are a number of reasons why he can settle in quickly. The most popular of them is his much-loved grandmother, Johanna DiStefano.
A Brooklyn woman that young Pulisic absolutely loved, she considered herself a proud Italian.
“Yes, I think my grandmother would be the most proud to see me do this – to sign for the biggest Italian club – so it’s a great feeling,” Pulisic said. “I’m really honored to be here to play for such a historic club like this and to play in Italy. She’s definitely looking down on me right now and I feel proud.”
When Pulisic was at Borussia Dortmund and his grandfather’s Croatian heritage became a central theme, DiStefano tapped his talented grandson to trumpet his Italian lineage.
“Oh yes, she let everyone know that she was Italian – actually that she was Sicilian,” Pulisic said. “That was her claim to fame. She sure cooked us some incredible Italian food. I miss those meals, so she was a big part of my life, and yes, we miss her a lot too. My dad, her son, has an Italian flag tattooed on his forearm, so I think it’s funny how it all works. Now Italy is a big part of my life.”
There are more practical route maps for Milan’s new star, who was mobbed by waiting fans at Malpensa Airport when he entered and fit in quickly.
He speaks quite good Spanish, a clear interpretive guide to understanding much more Italian while learning the new language. He also loved the extended briefing Milan coach Stefano Pioli gave him long before the contracts were signed.
As a bonus, he knows – and has been in contact with – several of the Rossoneri squad. Pulisic shared the Stamford Bridge dressing room with Olivier Giroud, Fikayo Tomori and Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Pioli, the coach who in 2022 brought Milan their first league title since 2011, not only briefed Pulisic on his potential role in the team – he persuaded him to sign.
“The coach really made me feel that he wanted me here … that he wanted me to be part of this team and how he saw me fit in,” Pulisic said of Pioli. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. Of course I just want a fair opportunity like everyone else, of course I still have to earn my place, but it felt like I was really wanted here. When I show good effort, good attitude every day and train well, then I get the opportunity to come out and perform.
“Coach Pioli explained to me why they want me in is because I’m a very direct and creative player. That’s something they specifically want.”
Nor has he lacked encouragement from his new teammates.
“I’ve spoken to all the ex-Chelsea guys,” Pulisic said. “Of course [Giroud] and I had a good relationship in our last club and some good times together. We scored many goals together and he definitely persuaded me to come here.
“He told me exactly how big a club it is and that AC Milan is a place where I can really flourish as a player. But I have spoken to [Tomori], [Loftus-Cheek], all those guys. I’ve only heard good things so I’m really excited to get going here and it’s nice to see some familiar faces.”
The last time ESPN sat down to chat with Pulisic, it was in London, not long after his influential and exciting World Cup performance. He spoke passionately about his faith, his belief that there is a predestined path for his life and his ability to rise to face challenges.
Now there is probably an even greater sense of destiny.
“It’s still very true that I trust the path I’m on. I know [God] always watching over me and even though there have been many tough moments in my career, I wouldn’t be where I am today without him. So I just trust. I trust that everything happens for a reason and that there is definitely a plan for me.”
The next leg of the schedule begins at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena on July 23 against the mighty Real Madrid. Came with it.