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Will rebirth of Pulisic, Musah make AC Milan America’s team?

MILAN — Where’s Christian Pulisic? “Still at lunch,” Yunus Musah says. He flashes a smile.

Musah is standing in the players’ lounge at AC Milan‘s Milanello training complex northwest of the city. The paper bag he’s carrying holds chicken and pasta from the team commissary, where, Italy being Italy, the food is even tastier than it has to be.

Musah is smiling because of the meal he just ate, perhaps, but mostly because he’s nearly always smiling. Pulisic, his teammate at Milan since August and with the U.S. men’s national team for the past three years, is different: intense, quiet, introspective. His features typically reveal nothing, other than that he’s studying the situation. “That’s Christian,” says Gregg Berhalter, the USMNT head coach. “Getting to know him can be a process.”

The two Americans, who eat together after training almost every day, make an unconventional pair. At 25, Pulisic is already a veteran of some of football’s greatest spectacles; he has played in the UEFA Champions League final for Chelsea, and for Borussia Dortmund before 80,000 fans. He’s “Captain America,” the nation’s most popular footballer.

Musah has never even lived in America. He happened to be born in New York while his Ghanaian mother was visiting relatives, then grew up in Italy and England. Only 20, he’s an emerging star still finding his way.

But this isn’t just a case of seeking out a familiar face. Pulisic is helping Musah adjust to the expectations of playing at a major club. “I don’t think I need to be some big brother who tells him what to do,” Pulisic says, “but I’m always there for him.” And as Pulisic adapts to the singular rhythms of life in Italy, Musah’s presence is invaluable. “Small things,” explains Musah, who spent nine years in Castelfranco Veneto, near Venice. “Explaining the daily schedule. Translating the group chat.”

Their relationship seems to be paying dividends. Eleven games into the Serie A season, Pulisic is second on the team with four goals — two of them game winners. More than that, he has become such an integral part of the attack that it falters without him, which happened Saturday when he missed the game with a tweaked adductor and Milan managed just four shots on target in a 1-0 defeat to Udinese. One of those came from Musah, who first started for Milan at the end of September and has been in the first XI for the past eight matches. His spirited runs down the right side have often ended with crosses to Pulisic. “Two players of real quality,” says teammate Simon Kjaer, the Danish center-back. “They bring a good spirit to the team, in the dressing room and on the pitch.”

The two have arrived at AC Milan at an auspicious time. From a distressed equity that had fallen into the hands of an American hedge fund in 2018 after bankruptcy, the seven-time European champions have been rebuilt and revitalized. In 2022, they won the Scudetto for the first time in more than a decade. This past season, they reached the Champions League semifinals.

Pulisic was languishing at Chelsea early this summer when Milan’s latest owners — RedBird Capital, another American investment group — called to inquire. In his past two seasons at Stamford Bridge, he’d started only 21 games. He hadn’t scored a goal since last October. And Chelsea’s spending spree of new signings, which included enough wingers to fill a minivan, meant he didn’t seem likely to score another soon. Leaving west London for Milan was an easy decision, although it came with a substantial pay cut, according to ESPN’s Jeff Carlisle.

By then, the rumors that Musah would join him were rampant. Before long, Pulisic’s texts started showing up on Musah’s phone. I keep hearing you’re coming. What’s happening? What’s the holdup?

Musah, who had been at Valencia since 2019, had plenty of suitors. They included West Ham, Fulham and at least two French clubs. “I would have been comfortable at any of those places,” he says. “But I wanted to see what I’m capable of. And the best way to do that was to test myself in the most competitive situation possible.”

That meant Milan, one of the world’s premier clubs. And Milan meant Italy. Since moving to London with his family as a 9-year-old, Musah had returned only for the occasional youth tournament. In the summer of 2022, he visited his old hometown for his brother’s wedding.

When he sat down over a pizza, the memories came flooding back. “As soon as I had that first bite, it reminded me,” he says. When Milan came calling, he didn’t need convincing. In a curious twist, Milan paid Valencia a $22 million transfer fee to sign him, almost exactly what the club paid to sign Pulisic.

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Musah arrived at Milanello in August … and there was Pulisic to greet him. “The first time I saw him, it felt so strange,” Musah says. “It’s like, ‘There’s Christian! And I’m going to be seeing him every day.'”

Pulisic already has made a significant contribution to Musah’s career. Musah is a USMNT player today in part because of his support.

Musah’s parents are both from Ghana, but because he was born in the United States, he also qualifies for U.S. citizenship. He lived in Italy longer than anywhere else and thinks of himself as Italian. And playing at Arsenal‘s academy had led him to England’s youth teams. From the under-15s to the under-18s, he made 32 appearances.

According to FIFA regulations, he could have chosen to play for the senior team of any of those nations. In September 2020, Berhalter asked him to represent the U.S. The offer took Musah by surprise. “I’d never thought about being American, or playing for America,” he says. “I told my father, ‘At least now I have some use for that passport.'”

Berhalter invited Musah to participate in two games over an international break. It was a trial run; the games were friendlies, so they wouldn’t have bound him to the USMNT. On Nov. 11, 2020, Musah debuted for the U.S. against Wales. On Nov. 16, he started against Panama. He impressed the U.S. staff as an inside midfielder able to operate in confined spaces, although he’d been playing as a winger in Valencia. And he impressed Pulisic. “Wow, Yunus, you’re really good,” Pulisic told him. “Just keep what you’re doing. You have everything you need to become great.”

The comment made an impact. “Sometimes you need to hear it from your peers,” Berhalter says. “We could tell that there were times when Yunus lost confidence at Valencia. So to hear that from a really experienced, world-class player, as opposed to just hearing it from us, it probably gave him the motivation to keep pushing.”

Musah knew that Pulisic had played with some of the world’s biggest talents, including Jadon Sancho, Erling Haaland, Mason Mount and Kai Havertz. “So for him to tell me that,” Musah says now, “it gave me a lot of pride.” It helped make him feel part of the American team; if the best player thinks you’re that good, you usually don’t need to worry about winning over the others. Early in 2021, he committed to play his international football as an American.

Even after Pulisic’s praise, though, the two didn’t immediately become close. That sort of friendship at first sight seldom happens with Pulisic. “You have to really establish trust for Christian to open up,” Berhalter says. “It may take a while. Yunus is almost the exact opposite in that his smile is infectious. You don’t even have to speak with him and you’re drawn to him.”

The gap between their ages, which were 17 and 22 at the time they met, can feel like a generation. But as Musah became a regular in the U.S. side, and especially at last year’s World Cup in Qatar, they started spending more time together. “Now they’re living in a different country together,” says Nico Estevez, now the head coach at FC Dallas, who previously worked as an assistant coach under Berhalter and scouted Musah when Musah was playing at Valencia. “They already had a strong connection, and that relationship will naturally become stronger.”

Since coming to Milan, they’ve occasionally spent time together away from Milanello, most memorably at an outdoor photo shoot that Pulisic recalls as “the hottest day of the year.” But logistics is an issue.

Like many AC Milan players, Pulisic lives in a 90-acre mixed-use development called CityLife. It’s an urban setting inside Milan’s inner ring and adjacent to the San Siro neighborhood where the team plays its games. The development itself is stunning: renowned architects such as Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid contributed residence buildings. But its glass-and-steel modernity could situate it just about anywhere in the world.

Musah is among only a few players who choose to live outside the city. He hates driving, and although CityLife is close to San Siro, it’s some 40 minutes from Milanello, where he needs to go for training nearly every day. Instead, he found a house in Varese in the Lombardy countryside. When he walks through the old city center, which is filled with 18th- and 19th-century buildings, he could be nowhere but Italy. He’ll visit one of the nearby lakes, go out for a quiet meal, and spend time at home. It reminds him of his childhood.

Castelfranco Veneto, where he grew up, is a city of some 40,000 northwest of Venice, on the other side of the Italian peninsula. His mother owned a shop that catered to the area’s substantial Ghanaian émigré community. It sold African spices and food, did money transfers and facilitated long-distance calls. “And there were Powerades in the fridge,” Musah says.

When he moved to Milan, the idea of making a home on the 26th floor of some sprawling development didn’t hold much appeal. But he does miss out on time with his teammates. He and Pulisic have ongoing plans to meet for a dinner — a taste of the real Italy — but it hasn’t happened yet. “Someday soon,” Musah promises.

Perhaps Musah’s presence has contributed to Pulisic’s easy adaptation to Serie A, where few Americans have prospered over the years. His teammates are quick to reference how comfortable he looks. “Sometimes you just need someone to believe in you,” says Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who experienced Pulisic’s frustrations firsthand when they were both at Chelsea and now plays with him at Milan. “We believe in Christian.”

And with Musah playing regularly, the two Americans can work together to create chances on the right side. “I can feel the connection out there, to be honest,” Pulisic says. “We’ve played together on the national team for quite a while now. And I feel like I’m getting to know him better every day.”

The weekend before October’s international break, they broke through. Into the 87th minute, Milan’s game against Genoa was scoreless. Then Musah, who was playing as a hybrid of right-back and midfielder, fed winger Pulisic with a pinpoint cross into the box. Pulisic played it off his chest, wheeled and pumped the ball into the corner of the net.

The goal, which temporarily took AC Milan to the top of the table, brought the announcer on the Italian telecast to a crescendo. “USA!” he shouted over the din. “USA! USA! USA!”

Growing up in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pulisic had two Italian teammates. “To them, AC Milan was the biggest club in the world,” he says. But Milan, not unlike a number of European football’s historic clubs outside the Premier League, lags behind English clubs in popularity among Americans. “It’s not yet at the level of the other big clubs in America, like when you see how many people wear its jerseys,” Pulisic acknowledges.

In 2018, after then-owner Li Yonghong failed to repay a loan, an American fund that had no interest in owning a football team ended up with AC Milan. “And to their credit, they took it very seriously,” says Ivan Gazidis, the former Arsenal chief executive whom the fund, Elliott Management, hired to run the club. “They thought not just, ‘How do we get out of this?’ but ‘How do we turn this around and make it a success story?'”

But even while winning the Scudetto two seasons ago, Milan earned less television revenue than Norwich City, the Premier League’s bottom team. Gazidis set out to fix that by growing the club’s profile in America. At the time that Elliott inherited Milan, two thirds of the club’s sponsors were based in the city or the surrounding region. By August 2022, when Elliott finally sold the club to a group led by RedBird Capital, two thirds of those sponsors were international.

Among the new owners are baseball’s New York Yankees, who appreciate that America’s most popular footballer appears on their team sheet week after week. Although the Yankees’ YES Network doesn’t own live rights to Serie A, it shows AC Milan’s games on tape delay.

“One hundred percent, Christian helps us market in the U.S.,” says Randy Levine, the Yankees’ president, while noting that Musah, too, is rapidly developing an American following. The Yankees sell the club’s branded apparel at their shops. And on a Thursday in September, they held AC Milan night at Yankee Stadium and distributed caps with the red-and-black crest.

That same Thursday night, another event illustrated just how far the club has come in growing its brand. To help celebrate Fashion Week, AC Milan partnered with Italian Vogue and Virgil Abloh’s luxury fashion label Off-White to stage the first dinner ever held on the field at San Siro.

Invited guests included singer and TikTok personality Dixie D’Amelio, model Alessandra Ambrosio and a critical mass of provocatively dressed fashion executives. They were served Volzhenka caviar, red prawn tartare and seared sea bass with saffron sauce while hobnobbing with Milan players Rafael Leão, Samuel Chukwueze, Noah Okafor and Loftus-Cheek.

That was one manifestation of the club’s promising future. Another one was standing over a table at his home in Varese that evening, pulling boxes of food out of that paper bag. Had circumstances been different, this might have been a night for Musah to meet Pulisic in the private room of a restaurant somewhere for an authentic Italian dinner. But Gazzetta dello Sport was reporting that he’d be starting against Hellas Verona that Saturday and his priorities were clear. The dinner with Pulisic could wait.

“The kitchen at Milanello is so good, I don’t have to go out,” he said with his ubiquitous smile. There was no caviar or prawn tartare, to be sure. But he had everything he needed, right there in front of him.

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