Christian Pulisic wants to play in Olympics, but it’s complicated

Christian Pulisic
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Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, one of the U.S.’ top male soccer players, said Wednesday that he would like to play in the Olympics, but that’s not something he controls.

“The Olympics is something that is, of course, a massive honor to play in. To represent your country in an Olympics would be amazing,” Pulisic said when asked if he’d be interested in playing in the Olympics. “It’s something I’ve thought about and I have wanted to play in. Obviously, I can’t control exactly what goes on and what is best for me at the time and what’s best for the team at the time, I obviously can’t say. But it is something that I would like to play in.”

The U.S. men play a winner-goes-to-Tokyo match in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying on Sunday in Mexico against, likely, Canada or Honduras.

They failed to qualify for the Olympics in 2012 and 2016.

Pulisic, 22, is one of many U.S. stars who are age-eligible for the under-23 qualifying tournament but are not on the roster. That’s in large part because clubs aren’t required to release players for Olympic qualifying, and it’s midseason for the top European leagues.

Complicating matters: clubs aren’t required to release players for the Olympics, either. But they are required to release players for the Gold Cup, a senior tournament for the U.S. and other CONCACAF national teams that runs during the Olympics (but, and this may be important, finishes six days before the Olympic final).

“I’m not the one to answer that question,” about players in the Olympics, U.S. men’s national team coach Gregg Berhalter said Wednesday. “The one to answer that question are the players’ clubs. We have to sit and have conversations with these clubs. We have to say, OK, guys, here’s what’s coming up in the calendar. You have Nations League [in early June in a FIFA window]. You have Gold Cup. You have Olympics. You have World Cup qualifying in three [FIFA] windows in the fall. And then 2022, you have January and March [World Cup qualifying in FIFA windows]. So, what do you think, guys? You want to release your players for the Olympics, and what are they going to say? It’s an uphill battle that we’re fighting.”

Berhalter said that, in a perfect world, he would like to see the best players in the Olympics.

“I’m just not sure that’s going to happen,” Berhalter said. “I’m not sure the clubs are going to allow the players to go.”

Berhalter said it’s also not realistic for the Gold Cup roster to be mostly Europe-based players after their 2020-21 club seasons and Nations League. They would miss 2021-22 preseason time, too.

If Pulisic is released by Chelsea for the Olympics, the decision falls on the U.S. to choose between the Gold Cup and the Tokyo Games, which is mostly for players 23 and under. Or neither and save him for World Cup qualifying later in 2021.

It brings to mind what happened five years ago, when a deal was struck among Brazil, FC Barcelona and Neymar to allow him to play in the Rio Olympics but not Copa America Centenario, which was a tournament for which clubs were required to release players. The difference: Copa America ended before the Rio Games.

For Pulisic, he is guaranteed to be allowed to play for the U.S. in late July and early August. It’s just a matter of which, if either, tournament is preferred by his club and, potentially, U.S. Soccer.

Other American stars in a similar situation to Pulisic: Weston McKennie of Juventus, Gio Reyna of Borussia Dortmund, Sergiño Dest of Barcelona and Tyler Adams of Leipzig.

The U.S. is so stocked with young talent that all of them are age-eligible for the Olympics (born on or after Jan. 1, 1997) without having to use one of up to three over-age exceptions.

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