When John Obi Mikel opted to go to the Olympics in 2016 instead of joining Chelsea’s preseason under new manager Antonio Conte, it was a gamble that backfired. Nigeria didn’t win and Conte took Mikel skipping preseason to go to Brazil as a sign of disloyalty. The long term Chelsea player was frozen out and his career in blue came to an unceremonious end.
Fast forward “four” years and the 2020 Olympics in 2021 raises a similar dilemma for Christian Pulisic. The Chelsea winger can go to Japan, but it will mean missing the start of next season. For Christian Pulisic and the club, that gamble may be worth it.
First of all, why is this different than Mikel’s situation? Neither player was or is necessarily must have for their current squads. Mikel was more of a closer at that point, best served coming on late to shut up shop. Pulisic is on the other end of his career where he is still trying to make an impact on Chelsea after his heroics of last season. Chelsea could and can afford to lose them for the Olympics for different reasons.
But why would Chelsea let Pulisic go, miss the start of preseason, and be behind his teammates when he returns? The main thing might be that he needs it. Pulisic has yet to reach the heights of last season this season. Some of that has been injury but so much more of it has been confidence. Playing in the Olympics, a u-23 tournament on paper, might be just what he needs to find his feet again before returning to Chelsea a bolstered player.
Also unlike Mikel and Conte, Thomas Tuchel will have had the benefit of seeing Pulisic for a few months (and seasons if Dortmund is considered) before he goes off to the Olympics. He may not be able to jump right back in, but it appears as though Pulisic will be given the benefit of the doubt that Mikel wasn’t afforded.
There would be other hurdles from the United States side of things to get through as well. Given it is a u-23 (u-24 technically this season), Pulisic would qualify without being one of the overaged players. Even still, there is something to be said about sticking to the team that gets there (assuming they do). Pulisic hasn’t been a part of the USMNT Olympic qualifying campaign and to include him now might be a slap in the face of the players that could get the US to Japan.
Of course, this might also be perhaps the best team the US could theoretically take to the Olympics. An Olympic squad consisting of Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Sergino Dest, and others based in Europe would require a ton of permissions for club teams but it would easily be one of the strongest teams in the tournament.
There would also be overlap with the Gold Cup this summer which could also see these players come together in a way that takes clubs out of it. It wouldn’t be as easy of a confidence booster as the Olympics could be for Pulisic, and there will be other Gold Cups, but Chelsea could get the same benefits from either tournament.
Chelsea allowed Mikel to go to the Olympics because he was surplus to requirements. Chelsea could allow Pulisic to go not because he is surplus, but because a confident Pulisic post Olympics may be worth the risk of letting him go and miss the start of preseason. It would require a lot of other things to happen as well, but Chelsea can do their part and consider leaving the door open.