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Will Christian Pulisic start for Chelsea in Champions League final? Tackling the big question facing U.S. soccer’s biggest star

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Will Christian Pulisic start for Chelsea in Champions League final? Tackling the big question facing U.S. soccer's biggest star

Not long after Christian Pulisic achieved the most glorious moment of his nascent soccer career, he stood before a board plastered with advertisements and faced a television camera and microphone prepared to beam his joy across the planet. He had been the principal agent of Chelsea Football Club’s advancement to the UEFA Champions League final, the biggest annual game in the world’s preeminent sport. His pride and delight were obvious.

And so was his pique.

All were warranted, for certain.

“Very frustrated,” he said, then shrugged his shoulders so powerfully he could have tweaked a trapezius (video below). “Um, yeah. There’s not much else to say. I wanted to play from the beginning, as I always do. I’ve had to continue to prove myself, over and over again. But, as always I just reach out to God, and He gives me strength. With that behind me, nothing can stop me, really.”

In the first leg of Chelsea’s Champions League semifinal series against Real Madrid, Pulisic had scored the away goal that gave the Blues a substantial advantage for the return match at Stamford Bridge. Despite that goal, however, and the fact he’d performed exceedingly well through his 66 minutes against Real, Pulisic was not in the starting lineup for the second leg.

Beginning with the April 13 second game of the quarterfinal Champions League series against Porto, Pulisic has started eight times in 12 games including that competition, the FA Cup and the Premier League. Every one of those games, because Chelsea was in a tight competition for a 2021-22 Champions League berth, contained tremendous consequence. So even though there is no guarantee he’ll be on the team sheet when manager Thomas Tuchel submits it in advance of Saturday’s 3 p.m. EDT final against Manchester City, it’s more likely than not.

Were he not to start, Pulisic obviously would not be content. Judging by his second-leg performance against Real, though, he likely would channel any displeasure into his performance, as he did through a scintillating effort after entering that game midway through the second half and generating a clinching goal for teammate Mason Mount.

“In the first game it was what Christian does. That, to me, is a typical Christian performance: being able to terrorize the defense, make an impact by scoring goals and being dangerous,” USMNT head coach Greg Berhalter told Sporting News. “What I really liked in the second game was his mindset and his tenacity coming off the bench. Because that’s not easy. And the coach is in a situation where he wants Christian to come in and make a difference, and he absolutely makes that difference. And that was really great to see.

“You can understand there can be disappointment by not starting the game, and the only way to respond is to show it on the field. And that’s exactly what he did.”

It would have been easy for Pulisic to brush past that benching, if one wishes to call it that, after Chelsea had clinched advancement to the Super Bowl of world soccer.

Tuchel’s decision not to start Pulisic was rooted in tactical logic: Because Chelsea had the away goal tiebreaker following the first leg, the first priority was to keep Real Madrid from matching it at Stamford Bridge. So Pulisic’s attacking ability was slightly less necessary. Tuchel also expressed the preference for a taller player, 6-foot-2 Kai Havertz, to help cope with set-piece defending that had been a problem on Karim Benzema’s tying goal in the first leg. And, in the event Chelsea yielded a goal and had an emergency need for Pulisic’s skill for creating and finishing goals, he was available on the bench.

(Getty Images)

Pulisic, though, has not followed the easy road to reach such an elevated position at age 22. He was playing in consequential games against the world’s best players at 17 years old. He nearly pushed an aging, fading U.S. men’s national team to the 2018 World Cup with seven goals and seven assists in 13 qualifying matches while still a teenager. He made the move to Chelsea for a transfer fee of $70.4 million at age 20. Even though he made a statement with his play in those final minutes against Real Madrid, maybe it wasn’t enough to leave it there.

“Oh, I love it. Because I happen to believe that he should start,” Fox Sports lead studio analyst Alexi Lalas told SN. “I said a while ago, I said: He’s too good for this Chelsea team. That’s how good he is. And so I want to see him on the field. And that he has that drive and that intensity and that desire to be successful, that’s what makes all great athletes regardless of nationality. And so that should not be a surprise. That should be welcomed.

“Keep in mind, for Tuchel or whoever his coach is: You should want that. If you’re a player who is satisfied that you’re not playing, I submit that there’s something wrong with you.”

Lalas admires Pulisic’s instinct to attack first upon receiving the ball, something that has dwindled as the sport has become more oriented toward possession and the gradual build of offensive movement.

“His first thought of going forward, that’s reserved for some real elite company and elite teams out there,” Lalas said. “I don’t think there’s a team in the world, if given the opportunity, that wouldn’t want Christian Pulisic. He is, legit, one of the elite talents in the world.”

thomas tuchel and christian pulisic at
Getty Images

Chelsea has an abundance of attacking options available to deploy against Manchester City. Most often aligning the team in a 3-4-1-2 formation, Tuchel has available World Cup champion Olivier Giroud, young English talents Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi and Moroccan veteran Hakim Ziyech. And those are the guys who lately aren’t playing quite as much.

Among the regular starters are England’s Mason Mount and Germans Timo Werner and Havertz, acquired last summer for a combined $146 million. That’s the competition for Pulisic each day in training, each day as Tuchel ponders the best 11 to field against Manchester City.

“I feel as though, when you compare and contrast what he has in his locker as opposed to the other players, I think he has separated himself as the most ruthless and lethal and dangerous type of player,” Brian Dunseth, host of the Counter Attack program on SiriusXM FC, told SN. “That’s no disrespect to anybody else in that position. And I don’t compare him to Mason Mount, who is more of a buildup sort of player. I look at Timo Werner or Ziyech or Callum Hudson-Odoi, and I just watch Christian so comfortable on the ball, with multiple players closing him down and figuring out a solution. I look at Christian and see his positive first touch, running at players every single time.

“I just think he’s such an overall well-rounded player. The only thing I’m concerned about is what I’m sure everybody’s concerned about: just making sure his body can handle the rigors of the amount of games and those little niggles that he gets because he’s such an explosive type of player.”

That’s been the fundamental problem for Pulisic since moving to Chelsea. He has missed a combined 25 games in all competitions over two seasons with injuries to his hamstring, abdominal muscles and foot.

The dismissal of manager Frank Lampard in January also complicated Pulisic’s circumstance. Pulisic had played for Tuchel early in his career at Dortmund, and it was expected that would provide a small advantage in the fight for playing time, but Pulisic wasn’t even an available substitute for two of Tuchel’s early Premier League games.

Not until Pulisic returned in late March from a successful run with the U.S. men’s national team did he begin to be fully incorporated in the Chelsea attack. And that appeared to elevate the Blues, as well.

“He’s one of the most frightening, breathtaking, talented young players I’ve seen for a long time,” CBS Sports analyst Micah Richards told reporters this week on a conference call. “He’s struggled with injuries, but I think now he’s getting a run of games. … And I think he could be the difference. We talk about Chelsea on the counterattack. He can do something individually brilliant. So I think he can have a huge impact on this game if he were to start or if he were to come off the bench.”

That is one way to look at it; it’s just not the way Pulisic would prefer. When he told Tim Howard of NBC Sports, “I want to win this thing,” it was obvious Pulisic did not simply mean he wished to be a member of the team that prevailed.

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

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Chris Paul, NBA Twitter react to Deandre Ayton's game-winning dunk in Suns vs. Clippers

Deandre Ayton was the hero for the Suns in their Game 2 win over the Clippers.

With less than a second left on the clock, the Suns were down one point and had just 0.9 seconds to get a shot off. Jae Crowder inbounded the ball on the baseline under the Suns’ basket and found Ayton cutting to the hoop.

Ayton threw it down. The play took just 0.2 seconds off the clock and sealed the 104-103 win for the Suns.

Here’s a look at the amazing finish.

Ayton and Crowder deserve a bulk of the credit, but Devin Booker had an impact on the finish as well. His physical screen on Ivica Zubac — who is seven inches taller and 35 pounds heavier than Booker — gave Ayton just enough space to get open off the cut and throw down the dunk.

And Booker put his body on the line despite playing with a bloodied nose that required stitches after an inadvertent hit from Patrick Beverley earlier in the game.

The Suns’ finish thrilled Phoenix fans as well as the team’s star point guard Chris Paul, who missed his second straight game in the NBA’s health and safety protocols. He took time to celebrate the victory on Twitter and praised coach Monty Williams for his “big-time play call.”

Indeed, it was a nice play call, and Williams made sure Ayton was prepared to dunk immediately after catching the ball.

“DA — if he throws it, you gotta try to dunk it,” Williams said. “Okay?”

Ayton was ready and obliged. As a result of his make, NBA Twitter erupted and celebrated the exciting end to yet another tightly-contested playoff battle. 

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn’t apply on Deandre Ayton’s dunk

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How Suns perfectly executed game-winning play — and why goaltending didn't apply on Deandre Ayton's dunk

Back in December 2017, the Suns and Grizzlies found themselves in a down-to-the-wire contest. Phoenix had the ball with just 0.6 seconds on the clock and the game tied at 97.

So what did then-Suns coach Jay Triano do? He unveiled a play that he had kept in his back pocket for years.

MORE: Chris Paul reacts to Deandre Ayton’s game-winning dunk

While standing on the sideline near the Grizzlies’ bench, Dragan Bender threw a pass toward Tyson Chandler that floated directly above the rim, giving Chandler the opportunity to slam it through the bottom of the net. Wait, you can do that?

“You cannot goaltend a ball that isn’t going to count,” Triano told reporters after the game.

More than three years later, Triano’s words were once again ringing throughout Phoenix Suns Arena. Coach Monty Williams drew up a similar play on Tuesday night, and his players executed it perfectly to give the Suns a stunning 104-103 win over the Clippers and a 2-0 series lead in the Western Conference finals.

Look at this beauty:

OK, let’s break down what NBA TV’s Matt Winer called “The Valley Oop.” (Great work, Matt).

First, notice the positioning of DeMarcus Cousins. Clippers coach Tyronn Lue made a smart move by putting Cousins on Jae Crowder in order to make an inbound pass more difficult, but Cousins is squared up to Crowder, opening up the passing lane Crowder needs.

As for the action in the paint, Devin Booker sets a terrific screen on Ivica Zubac, allowing Deandre Ayton to break free. Could Nicolas Batum have bumped Ayton and recovered? Possibly, but he is understandably concerned with leaving Booker.

(NBA)

Once Ayton gets a step on Zubac running toward the basket, it’s on Crowder to put the ball in a spot in which Ayton can score. As you can see from the angle below, Crowder just narrowly avoids the backboard. The placement here is simply incredible.

“That’s definitely Jae’s game-winner,” Ayton said after the game.

deandre ayton suns play
(NBA)

Now, you may still be asking, “But why isn’t that a goaltending violation?”

As the NBA explained in its Last Two Minute Report from that December 2017 game, “Goaltending rules do not apply because (Chandler) makes contact with the ball off of a throw-in and not a live ball that has already legally been touched on the playing court.” Scott Foster, who served as the crew chief on Tuesday, offered the same explanation when asked about Ayton’s dunk.

Sometimes less than a second can be all the time in the world. Just ask any Suns fan.

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Clippers’ Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

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Clippers' Paul George misses crucial free throws in stunning Game 2 loss to Suns

The box score from Tuesday’s Suns-Clippers game — a pivotal Game 2 win for Phoenix in the Western Conference finals — will show Paul George had a decent game.

Twenty-six points, on 10-of-23 shooting; six assists; six rebounds; and 5-of-10 shooting from the free throw line. He also scored his team’s last six points, all within the last minute, to help the Clippers to a 103-102 lead with just 8.2 seconds remaining.

The only stats that ultimately mattered in the Clippers’ 104-103 loss, however, were the final two free throws George — a career 84.7-percent free throw shooter — missed. They ultimately allowed Phoenix a chance at an unbelievable comeback victory, which may prove costly even as the series heads back to LA.

NBA MOCK DRAFT 2021: Who will Pistons, Rockets take with top picks?

Had George sunk both of those shots, the Suns would have needed a 3-pointer just to send the game to overtime. Had he sunk even one shot, they would have needed a 2-pointer. But he missed both, allowing the Suns to win on an inbound dunk with less than a second remaining:

Credit to Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and the Suns. That play will go down as one of the top plays in NBA playoffs history. But every heartbreaking loss needs a goat, and no one fits the bill better than “Playoff P,” who could have secured a win for his team with the simplest of basketball scoring plays.

Here’s the bright side for the Clippers, if there is one: They have already overcome 2-0 deficits in each of their first two series against the Mavericks and Jazz, respectively. That’s likely a cold comfort as George and Co. head back to LA, however. The scathing Twitter comments aimed at George likely won’t do anything to help, either:

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