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Breaking down Pulisic’s competition at Chelsea

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Christian Pulisic has gone three Premier League games without seeing the field. An unused substitute again at Stamford Bridge as Chelsea topped Brighton 2-0 on Saturday, the 21-year-old told NBC Sports that his lack of playing time is “very frustrating” and that “it is tough for me right now.”

Frank Lampard is under no obligation to play the American despite his hefty $73 million price tag on the move from Borussia Dortmund over the winter. With that in mind, it’s time to take a look at the performances of his competition at Chelsea and determine whether the Blues boss is making the right decision in keeping Pulisic on the bench.

There seems to be at least four other attacking players above Pulisic in the depth chart: Experienced international wingers Willian and Pedro, and youngsters Mason Mount and Callum Hudson-Odoi. Here’s a closer look at each player’s season so far.

Mason Mount

The 20-year-old England youth international has exploded onto the scene this campaign, forced into the rotation due to Chelsea’s transfer ban. He has taken his chance marvelously, proving a massive threat to opposition defenses on the ball. The sample size is still small, but Mount is currently rated as WhoScored’s 14th best player so far this season with an impressive 7.45 rating. He has delivered three goals thus far, and has produced over two key passes per game and just under two successful dribbles per game.

Lampard has begun to deploy Mount more centrally, pairing him in midfield with Ross Barkley and allowing him to venture forward. He created three chances against Brighton last time out and won the penalty that saw Jorginho put Chelsea in front just after halftime. There is no doubt that in his current form, Mount should be starting every match for Chelsea at this point, and Pulisic can have no qualms about sitting behind the fellow youngster.

Pedro

Since arriving from Barcelona in 2015, Pedro has been a versatile player that has seen significant time under a host of different Chelsea managers who have all noticed his value. Playing as a true winger, a central creative force, or a wing-back in various formations, Pedro has been able to contribute in a number of ways.

This season, Pedro has been of decent quality. He started slow against Brighton last time out but ended up with a solid overall performance, testing the goalkeeper a few different times and creating opportunities for his teammates. Still, that was his first league appearances since August and he was withdrawn for Hudson-Odoi after an hour. Lampard doesn’t seem to fully trust the Spaniard. His appearance in the lineup against Brighton instead of Pulisic was probably the most surprising given his lack of playing time thus far, but he proved a valuable asset.

Willian

Willian provides an experienced foil to the youthful Mount and Hudson-Odoi (Getty Images).

While a hamstring problem carried over from summer international duty limited him early in the season, the 31-year-old Brazilian has seen significant playing time over the last month. Racking up three straight 90-minute showings in a row in league play, Willian is a trusted servant for Frank Lampard early on. Unfortunately, it’s somewhat difficult to determine why.

Aside from the demolition of Wolves in which he was brilliant, the performances have been quite spotty for Willian thus far. While his passing accuracy is 80 percent this season, a closer look shows a host of square passes well outside the box that inflate that total. Against Brighton, Willian added little creativity, especially in the first half when Chelsea as a whole struggled to produce much of anything. Still, he came away with the game’s second goal, a tight-angled strike out of basically nothing that was deflected in and punished poor one-on-one marking and even worse goalkeeping.

Another key part of Willian’s game is his defensive contributions which often can neuter his overall attacking threat. He came away from the Brighton with four completed tackles on the right flank, an impressive total for a winger. A look at his performance in the loss to Liverpool shows he was pinned back by his defensive duties for much of the game, and when he did get forward he was unable to produce much, completing just two of his six attempted passes in the penalty area and failing to come away from the match with an official chance created. Willian is a good squad player, but he hasn’t exactly dazzled in the early going. His fans will say he’s never been a dazzling player, and that’s a fair retort.

Callum Hudson-Odoi

Just having returned from an Achilles injury, the 18-year-old is clearly a fabulous talent. With the Blues having rejected Bayern Munich’s advances. There’s a feeling of obligation to play Hudson-Odoi now that Bayern has been rebuffed to confirm the club’s commitment to his future. Still, there’s a reason he sees the field. In 30 minutes against Brighton, he picked up an assist and proved valuable defensively, completing two tackles in two attempts and completing 21 of 24 passes. It wasn’t an inspiring passing chart, but Chelsea was playing with a lead the entire time.

Plenty remains to be seen here how he gets on after returning from injury, but as a huge talent that has already broken into the England senior squad, there’s little reason to think he won’t see a lot of the field.

The verdict:

This is a difficult one to analyze as aside from Mason Mount, there are plenty of question marks remaining among those in front of Pulisic on the depth chart. Willian and Pedro are older, experienced players who don’t light up the field but managers love them for their dedication to the team effort and game plan, while Hudson-Odoi has plenty to prove on his way back from injury but figures to be given the chance to do so.

Given the unknowns, there’s no reason to think Pulisic can’t work his way back up the ranks. Chelsea is clearly committed to youth this season, and there is plenty of incentive to develop Pulisic into a regular contributor given his promise, his age, and the club’s financial commitment. Eventually, it’s logical to think Willian and Pedro will be phased out in favor of the younger attacking players.

Let’s also remember, Christian Pulisic isn’t the only good player struggling for time at Chelsea. Jorginho has proven an improved asset at Stamford Bridge, while Kante has also struggled with injury, the improved play of Jorginho has enabled Lampard to be careful with the French midfielder, confirming Kante missed the Brighton squad with a hamstring problem that left Chelsea to be cautious. Had Jorginho not been playing so well, Kante may have been risked.

While it’s natural to panic over Pulisic’s small workload early on – and certainly frustrating for the player given his phasing out at Dortmund at the hands of Jadon Sancho – it’s not time to push the big red button. Lampard has clearly told Pulisic to improve his training, and nobody but the team knowns what goes on there. All we can judge is what happens on the field, and until someone at Chelsea struggles greatly and deserves to be replaced, it’s tough to see a way back in for Pulisic in the short-term.

USMNT looks toward Olympic qualifying

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NEW YORK (AP) USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter will be looking toward Olympic soccer qualifying when the senior national team plays Costa Rica on Saturday in an exhibition at Carson, California.

Thirteen of the 22 players on the American roster are eligible for Olympic qualifying, which is limited to players under 23. The U.S. men failed to reach the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, and they are in a difficult qualifying group that includes Mexico and Costa Rica.

“It’ll be nice to give them an opportunity to perform in front of a crowd in a real international game,” Berhalter said during a telephone conference call on Monday.

Twelve players have no previous international experience. The U.S. has used 74 players in 30 matches since the 2017 loss at Trinidad and Tobago that ended the Americans’ streak of seven straight World Cup appearances, and 36 players have made debuts: 24 under interim coach Dave Sarachan and 12 under Berhalter, who was hired in December 2018.

“We think this age group is talented for the Olympic age group and we’re excited to see how they navigate through the qualification process and then eventually build the group for the Olympics” Berhalter said.

Olympic qualifying runs from March 20-30 and the U.S. will be coached by Jason Kreis. Since clubs are not required to release players to under-23 teams, top Americans Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergino Dest are not likely to be available. Major League Soccer starts Feb. 29, and its coaches may be reluctant to provide players.

“We’re going to need a lot of cooperation from Major League Soccer, and I know that’s difficult given the early stage of their season,” Berhalter said.

If the U.S. does qualify for the Olympics, it would be able to add three players over the age limit. But clubs could decline to release players.

“It would be nice to field our strongest team in the Olympics. We’re just not sure that’s going to happen,” Berhalter said.

Veterans on the roster this weekend include forwards Gyasi Zardes and Paul Arriola, defender Aaron Long and midfielder Sebastian Lletget. Goalkeeper Bill Hamid could make his first appearance since a June 2018 exhibition at Ireland.

On other topics:

-Berhalter did not sound overly concerned about Pulisic’s adductor injury. The Chelsea midfielder has not played since Jan. 1 and is not likely to return until Feb. 17 at the earliest. “He played a lot of games in a short period of time over Christmas,” Berhalter said. “He’s a young player playing at an extremely competitive level and it takes a physical toll on your body. And him coming to terms with that is something that’s normal for the process of adapting.”

-On the best position for Adams, who has appeared at right back and right wing for RB Leipzig: “We see him primarily as a central midfielder. We always have seen him as a central midfielder. But we know that when we when we need to be flexible, he can play that position, as well. We think right now the right back position is filled with depth, and he’ll be most suited in our system in central midfield.”

-On the possibility of Long transferring from the New York Red Bulls to West Ham: “It obviously could be a potential big change in where he’s competing and what level he’s playing at. … That would be a step up for him.”

-Jesus Ferreira, a Colombian-born forward who received U.S. citizenship last month, may not be eligible to play this weekend pending the completion of paperwork.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Tottenham sign Lo Celso, close in on Bergwijn

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Tottenham Hotspur have signed Giovani Lo Celso from Real Betis, triggering a clause which turns his loan into a permanent transfer.

Lo Celso, 23, arrived on loan this summer and after injuries disrupted his first few months in England he has settled in very nicely in recent weeks.

The Argentine playmaker has signed a contact through 2025 and is the direct replacement for Christian Eriksen who is Inter Milan bound.

Spurs are also closing in on a deal for Steven Bergwijn as PSV Eindhoven left the winger out of training and he has flown to London for a medical.

Bergwijn, 22, is a rising star in the Dutch Eredivisie and according to our partners at Sky Sports he will join Tottenham for $32.5 million, rising to $35 million with add-ons.

With Christian Eriksen’s move to Inter Milan set to be completed on Tuesday, Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has brought in a younger, promising attacking player to help freshen up the attack alongside Lo Celso.

Tottenham have got their dominoes in order and now they are ready to fall.

Bergwijn is highly-rated and scored 16 goals in a struggling PSV side last season and has six goals to his name in 29 appearances in all competitions so far in 2019-20. He has recently broken into the Dutch national team and is regarded as one of the top young wing talents in Europe.

This is exactly the kind of transfer Spurs need to be making. Mourinho loves to have tricky and direct wingers in his teams to feed off a central striker and Bergwijn is on the up and is hungry to prove himself in England. It makes total sense with Eriksen on his way out for about $22 million, so it could be yet another shrewd bit of business from Levy and Co.

Aside from Bergwijn there is a push for a striker to arrive on a short-term deal with Harry Kane out injured until April, but given the form of Heung-Min Son, Lucas Moura and Dele Alli in attack, perhaps Mourinho and Levy will resist the urge to bring in a short-term solution up top.

Krzysztof Piatek, Willian Jose, Edinson Cavani and many others have been mentioned as potential stop gaps for Kane but the fluid movement of Son, Moura and Alli could be the way to go in attack. With Bergwijn added to the mix alongside the January loan addition of midfielder Gedson Fernandes, Spurs are getting younger and things have been freshened up quite nicely by Mourinho.

All things considered, not a bad window for Spurs, as they sit six points off the top four with 14 games to go and are still in the FA Cup and now have a plan without Kane for the UEFA Champions League knockout rounds and the final months of the season.

Solskjaer coy on Man United transfers; Alexis to return

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Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was coy when asked about possible transfer for Manchester United in the final days of the January window and revealed that Alexis Sanchez will return this summer.

Speaking ahead of their League Cup semifinal second leg against rivals Man City on Wednesday (City lead 3-1 from the first leg), Solskjaer was asked about a possible deal for Bruno Fernandes and if United will do any other business before the window shuts on Friday.

“I haven’t got any updates for you on transfers, I think it was a wasted question,” Solskjaer told a reporter. “I haven’t got anything to say now.”

Pushed further about what type of players United could sign, Solskjaer was asked if the club are now ‘thinking outside of the box’ amid reports they could sign strikers Odion Ighalo and Islam Slimani.

Solskjaer bemoaned the January window and how difficult it is to do business and shocked everyone as he revealed that Sanchez will be welcomed back with open arms in the summer when his loan with Inter Milan ends.

“Well, we’ve got players here we are working hard to get back and if there is something out there then the club are pursuing that and looking at it. Of course, it is the difficult window, it has always been,” Solskjaer said. “I can’t remember how many good ‘uns or deals we’ve brought in January. Henrik [Larsson] was good, Nemanja [Vidic] and Patrice [Evra] were two good ones. Henrik as a loan. Alexis… It is hard because some of the clubs don’t want to lose their players. Alexis will come back in the summer and prove you all wrong.”

“At the moment it doesn’t look like it, no,” Solskjaer added when asked about outgoings, while he added that Nemanja Matic may not be fit for the League Cup semifinal at Man City and Marcos Rojo is very unlikely to be sold.

It seems likely that United will not do any business in the final days of the window as Solskjaer looked frustrated but put on a brave face.

United are said to be $26 million short of matching Sporting Lisbon’s valuation of Fernandes and even though the Portuguese playmaker would make a big difference for them in the final months of the Premier League season, it seems unlikely the player they’ve chased since last summer will arrive at Old Trafford.

This news will no doubt be frustrating for United but given Mason Greenwood‘s recent displays, perhaps Solskjaer will place extra faith in the 18-year-old to fill the void left by Marcus Rashford over the next six weeks or so. It is either that or bring in a more experienced striker on loan for the rest of the season and that doesn’t seem to slot in with United’s new philosophy of developing young British talent.

Chelsea issue positive Pulisic injury update

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Chelsea have issued a positive injury update on Christian Pulisic as the USMNT star could be back quicker than expected from an adductor injury.

Blues boss Frank Lampard told Pro Soccer Talk last week that Pulisic would likely be back in mid-February during the latter part of the winter break.

[ MORE: Premier League schedule

However, via the club website Lampard has now suggested that Pulisic could have an outside chance of playing some part in their huge top four battle against Leicester City this Saturday (Watch live, 7:30 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

“Aiding that push in the not-too-distant future will be Christian Pulisic, who Lampard thinks will be back in training in the middle of the week although the Leicester City game on Saturday might come too soon,” Chelsea revealed.

This is really good news for Pulisic and Chelsea as the west London club have missed his creativity in the final third in recent games against Newcastle United (a defeat) and Arsenal (a home draw when playing against 10 men for over an hour).

Chelsea admitted they’ve missed Pulisic as the likes of Callum Hudson-Odoi and Willian were shut down rather easily out wide in their disappointing recent results.

“Yeah, a game like today (against Arsenal) could have been a good one where he would have been helpful for us because he was playing well for a patch. But other people have to stand up in those situations,” Lampard said.

Pulisic has been out since Jan. 3 with what Lampard described as a “nasty” injury to his adductor in training and that injury blow came after Pulisic had a slight hamstring issue over the festive period.

In his first season in the Premier League Pulisic has scored five goals and added two assists, with the Pennsylvanian native taking time to settle but he’s now become an integral part of the Chelsea squad.

He has something different compared to Lampard’s other attackers and his time out injured has actually reinforced just how important he is to this Chelsea team.