Christian Pulisic is a player reborn since signing for AC Milan in July. The former Chelsea winger left behind a frustrating spell in the Premier League for life in Serie A, and thus far, the American has delivered. Pulisic has scored four goals in eight games for the Rossoneri while becoming a key piece to Stefano Pioli’s new-look side.
Pulisic’s reemergence isn’t a coincidence. While he waited for a new club over the summer, Pulisic traveled to South Florida for a week of individual training with Ethan Sonis, who runs SAT Soccer in Miami. Sonis, 27, leads a five-person team of professional trainers who have amassed an impressive list of global clientele. His location in Miami certainly helps. For years, footballers have flocked to the city during their offseason.
The sessions take place under the hot Florida sun on a private field away from the cameras and scrutiny that his clients, like Pulisic, constantly attract.
“I don’t stargaze,” Sonis said. “(The players) don’t have to be perfect. I treat them like any regular human. I catch them raw. I catch them emotionally. They can get hot-headed with me. They can cry, they can scream, they can mess up.”
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European-based players Paulo Dybala, Andrés Guardado, Moises Kean, Jorge Sánchez and Joaquín Correa have all worked with Sonis in Miami. A longer list of MLS players have relied on Sonis, as well. He trained Austin FC’s Sebastián Driuissi and Julián Carranza of the Philadelphia Union in 2022. Driuissi scored 25 goals and finished runner-up in the MLS MVP race last year, while Carranza had a breakout season with the Union during their MLS Cup run.
But Pulisic was the big get for Sonis. When he launched SAT Soccer four years ago, Sonis trained youth and college players. The pandemic, though, changed his business completely. When football around the world stopped, former Inter Miami winger Rodolfo Pizarro contacted Sonis and asked if he could train with him. The requests from other players continued thereafter, many of whom contacted Sonis via social media.
Pulisic’s camp reached out to Sonis before the United States’ CONCACAF Nations League semifinal versus Mexico. Milan had not yet finalized the deal to sign Pulisic for $24.2 million. French side Lyon had also shown interest. With his future briefly uncertain, Pulisic and Sonis tailored the training sessions around the three positions that Pulisic typically occupies: right wing, left wing and the No. 10.
“What can you do better?” Sonis asked Pulisic. “That’s the conversation I had with Christian and with any player that I work with. My goal is to prepare them to be the best. I’m not preparing them to be two or three. I’m preparing them to be number one. That’s my expectation and that’s the demand that I’m putting on them.”
Then there’s step two.
“I have to get them to believe that what we’re going to do can really work and can really be successful,” said Sonis. He said that professional offseason training regimens remain “old school” with a focus on cardio.
“I’ve seen what the clubs give players,” Sonis said. “It’s just a running packet and that’s not enough.”
Pulisic arrived with his own checklist to work on, and Sonis came prepared having reviewed a number of Pulisic’s past matches with Chelsea and the USMNT. He presented Pulisic with the good and the bad, then customized a program for Pulisic that would maximize their time together – one that honed in on beating defenders off of the first touch, sharpening Pulisic’s touches in tight spaces and finishing. Because Pulisic’s next club destination was not known, Sonis covered a number of tactical scenarios as well.
“We had to be as prepared as possible and open to many different positions to get him ready for whatever league that was going to be,” Sonis said. “He does like the 10. He really enjoys that, but we said as a group, let’s prepare for everything. You’re working with such a high-level elite player, so it’s about adding pieces. Turning off his first touch. That was a big one.”
Pulisic’s injury history was another data point that Sonis had to consider. At Chelsea, Pulisic was plagued by ailments that forced him to miss more than 50 games over five seasons in London. It has become a stigma for the USMNT captain — a seemingly inevitable setback that Pulisic would face every European season.
After he signed with AC Milan, the analysis that followed centered mainly around Pulisic’s last chance to impress at a big club and whether he could stay healthy long enough to help Milan fight for their second Scudetto in three years. Pulisic’s start in Serie A is the byproduct of having had a complete and injury-free preseason under Pioli, who was among the American’s main admirers.
“For a guy like Christian, with injuries, we needed to work a lot on getting the confidence to pull through sessions without feeling anything and being confident in front of goal,” Sonis said. “That was our biggest thing.”
Pioli has been measured with Pulisic’s minutes to start the season. Through eight games, Pulisic has had just one 90-minute performance, which came in Milan’s second Serie A match against Torino. Pulisic has started eight of Milan’s 10 games (including in Champions League), often conceding his place to Nigerian winger Samuel Chukwueze.
Pulisic’s four goals, each one a different type of finish, mirror the work that he did with Sonis. Every session ended with a heavy workload in front of goal that stressed repetition and clean technique. Sonis said that the objective was to increase Pulisic’s goal-scoring production this season “to where he’s an all-around lethal finisher.” Pulisic isn’t known as a prolific goal scorer, but he is expected to be an integral part of Milan’s attack. So far, so good.
Pulisic’s latest goal for Milan was the winner in a 1-0 victory over Genoa on Oct. 7. It was a lovely bit of skill that featured a deft first touch, a turn in a tight space and a clinical finish — everything he worked on rigorously over the summer.
The goal Pulisic scored in his Milan debut against Bologna, however, highlighted his most dominant traits. From the right wing, Pulisic split two defenders with a quick burst then dribbled into the half space where he combined with Olivier Giroud. His former Chelsea teammate’s one-time pass set up Pulisic towards goal. After two close-control touches, he unleashed a shot into the opposite corner of the net.
Scoring again in the next match against Torino, Pulisic picked up the ball in the middle of the park and led a Milan counterattack. He played his other ex-Chelsea teammate, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, into space and then met Loftus-Cheek’s cross for an easy tap-in.
Pulisic’s goal against Lazio on Sept. 30 was a difficult left-footed half-volley from a Rafael Leão cross. But it was his movement that must’ve made Sonis proud. Pulisic came off the right wing and sprinted towards the penalty spot. He recognized his opportunity and took the space that Giroud had left behind. It was a training ground move and finish.
“I’m not the guy that’s teaching Christian something new,” Sonis said. “I’m just giving him another layer to say look, you can do this type of stuff. Go for it. You’re an elite player. No one should be able to touch him with the type of speed that he has.”
Pulisic was a big signing for Milan, but he isn’t the team’s star man. That’s quite the opposite when Pulisic represents his country, where he is relied upon heavily for goals and chance creation. He’ll lead the U.S. in a marquee friendly against Germany on Saturday in Connecticut. Speed and agility training was an important part of Sonis’ sessions with Pulisic, who was fresh off his first round of workouts with Sonis leading up to the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal. An inspired Pulisic was unplayable against Mexico, as he used his pace to overpower his markers and score a brace in the American’s 3-0 win.
Pulisic continued to work with Sonis up until his transfer to Milan was completed. The results were positive and Pulisic’s start in Italy is further proof.
“He enjoyed it,” said Sonis. “And I give him a lot of credit. This is Florida. It was hot and muggy. He felt in his own heart that he gave himself the best shot.”
Sonis stays in touch with each player and their respective camps and will travel to them if a player requests it. That’s especially true of Pulisic; working with him has been the pinnacle of Sonis’ short career as a professional trainer.
“Christian is the face of U.S. Soccer,” said Sonis. “He’s the guy. He’s the captain. Who would have thought three, four years ago when I started this whole business that I would be training the guy,” he said. “The best marketing for me is when Christian goes and puts two on Mexico. That’s the truth.”
(Top photo: John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)