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Revealed: How Chelsea secured Pulisic signing with secret Stamford Bridge away day

23:00 GMT 15/01/2020
Christian Pulisic Chelsea 2019-20
The Blues had a secret weapon in their pursuit of the USMNT star, a man who is now trying to ensure American youths have the chance to progress

There was a pivotal moment in Christian Pulisic's £58 million ($73m) transfer when Chelsea officials smuggled the American and his father Mark into Stamford Bridge to convince him to move to west London.

The United States were in London to face England and training at Championship club Brentford's facilities, but their star man would be whisked away for an important meeting.

As ever, Chelsea's negotiation team was led by Marina Granovoskaia, who got the deal done. However, their New Jersey-born chairman Bruce Buck was on the charm offensive and revealed to the Chelsea Mic'd Up Podcast last week that 'actually, Christian visited here.'

The move was seen as important for Chelsea, with Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool having a long-held interest in uniting the player with a former Borussia Dortmund coach that he admired.

It is only now that details have emerged from Buck on how he enlisted the help of a close ally.

Chelsea's long list of charitable aims extends to the United States where they work with an innovative inner city academy in New York City called FC Harlem. Buck called up his friend Irv Smalls, the executive director at FC Harlem, to come to London to covertly meet Pulisic.

A big part of the reasoning was that the former Major League Soccer (MLS) legal executive could connect with the United States' most valuable-ever player due to their shared upbringing in Hershey, Pennyslvannia.

"I met Christian before he signed here," Smalls tells Goal. "There are confidential parts but it was great to meet him with at Chelsea, who we have partnered with since 2013.

"As we walked around Stamford Bridge carefully dodging stadium tour groups we had a good chat about growing up in Hershey, the smell of chocolate and the Hershey Kiss Lights, Hershey Park and I talked about our program in Harlem and the work we do with Chelsea.

"He is a nice kid, laid back. I have caught up with him since. He has a good head on his shoulders and seems to have the right attitude and behaviour to continue his football development  at Chelsea. 

"He doesn't fit for me the typical American-style footballer. He has got more of a European style, fluid, silky, kind of glides around the pitch. It has been pleasure watching him thus far with the Blues.”

It was Pulisic's second visit to Stamford Bridge having come with his sister and his father to tour the stadium in 2006 when the club won the Premier League under Jose Mourinho. However, he had also visited Anfield, Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. He was in the UK due to his mother, Kelley, having a one-year teaching exchange in a village close to Oxford.

He spent most of his life in Hershey and it was at U.S. Soccer Development Academy club PA Classics where he honed the skills that attracted Dortmund. Making it in the U.S. is very different to what European players go through, and the Development Academy (DA) allowed him to reach the national stage before attracting Dortmund.

As a football coach, Pulisic's father was perfectly placed to help him make it in an incredibly competitive environment. However, Chelsea have now partnered with Smalls with his vision to see the same opportunities given to inner city kids like those in Harlem with wider reform also on his mind.

"There are many talented and hungry youths in the Manhattan, Harlem and Bronx neighbourhoods of NYC from which we serve, that just don't get opportunities to properly develop their passion for the game.

"I came to London in 2013 and we went to the academy and I met some of the executives. I saw a lot of kids from different cultures come into the cafeteria. I said: 'Do you have a diversity initiative at your club?'

"They were like: 'What do you mean?' I responded: 'That's a college basketball team in the U.S., that's not soccer. They were saying we are in the business of developing world class players, period. Race or your socio-economic status is not a criteria for development.

"In the United States, neighbourhoods like Harlem and the Bronx exist across the country and house untapped potential talent that could be a hotbed like we see with South East London.

"That's where you get Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jadon Sancho and Wilfried Zaha. Of course, it is not apples to apples and there is a long-standing history and culture of football in Europe. The sport is seen as way out to improve outcomes for them and their families the way basketball is viewed in our communities in the U.S.

"Those kids from South East London are the hungriest. This is their chance. The kids in our community are hungry, they just don't know the system or politics. They don't have the access to the network or contacts to navigate a growing youth football culture in the U.S.

"It still has several barriers to entry. Some which are institutionalised by the suburban pay-to-play youth system, whether they want to acknowledge it or not. Then there are some of the everyday challenges that disadvantaged youth have in their communities that wealthier families don't encounter.

“Often the system wants to tell our communities: 'If there is talent send them to us and we will take it from there'. I have done that and I have seen it is not that simple. It is not a meritocracy as they would want you to believe.

"I have seen clubs and coaches in the system wanting to use players to win games but not develop them as players as young men and women."

The Pulisic deal was notable because he was one of a kind. Both of his parents played futsal; Christian himself played futsal in Detroit while his father managed a team there and then spent time living in Europe.

There were also the trips set up by his father to play in Europe, including time in Barcelona's La Masia academy. His Croatian passport gave him two further years development at a top club that other U.S. nationals might not get.

There needs to be more stories like Pulisic's from a country so used to sporting excellence and which is hosting a World Cup in six years. It may take re-visiting the system and activating communities like Harlem to see a Pulisic alongside a Hudson-Odoi-type player while wearing those stars and stripes.

Smalls is now motivated and driven with a clear purpose of providing a quality grassroots-to-pro-football development pathway for the untapped disadvantaged youth of urban America: “It is so easy to dismiss our communities and say you can't, you won't, you don't have and you will never have because of this, that or the other.

"I am all about being solution-oriented at this point in my life. We understand in all sports the likelihood of going pro is small, but as the kids have often said to us: 'Build a pathway, give us an opportunity to dream and achieve it we might surprise you'.

"Since my time at MLS I make it point to keep myself educated on the business of football and then share this with our players. I am honest with them about the challenges and what it takes to succeed, often the biggest challenges are off the pitch.

"It is not just being physically prepared it emotionally, mentally and spiritually being grounded. I want them to not only aspire to be an elite player but they could own a team, run merchandising or whatever and give back to their communities.

"If we put them in the system, we have to continue mentoring them every step of the way. Now the World Cup is coming to the U.S, we are ambitious. I say we need a whole new system to engage these inner cities. It is not just for these kids but to help the U.S. become a better soccer country."

The simple idea of developing talent regardless of background in west London is happening in Harlem and it might help lead to players like Pulisic being the first of many, rather than one of a kind.