Toward the end, the only hurdle separating American soccer from a guaranteed and gratifying slice of history was Real Madrid, the club that embodies entrenched, old-world pedigree and which frequently seems to be playing with 12 or more on these climactic European nights.
But like so many barriers before it during this unrivaled season for Americans abroad, mighty Madrid fell. Chelsea, powered by a Christian Pulisic goal in the first leg and a backbreaking assist in Wednesday’s semifinal decider, deservedly defeated the visiting Spaniards, 2–0 on the night and 3–1 on aggregate, thus qualifying for the club’s third UEFA Champions League final. This one won’t be like the others, however, at least on this side of the Atlantic, because an American (and a Pennsylvanian) now is certain to win the Champions League in 2021.
Chelsea will face Manchester City, which employs U.S. national team goalkeeper Zack Steffen, in the competition’s third all-English final on May 29 in Istanbul. The Londoners will be playing for their second continental championship (2012), while City will be going for its first. While the occasion will represent a zero-sum game for the clubs, it’s a win-win for American soccer. Either Pulisic or Steffen will be lifting the trophy when it’s all over.
While Steffen was in reserve as City outlasted Paris Saint-Germain in the first semifinal on Tuesday, Pulisic was a primary protagonist as Chelsea eliminated the 13-time European champion. His exquisite goal last week lifted the Blues to a 1–1 draw in Madrid, granting Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel the latitude to approach Wednesday’s second leg with a bit more pragmatism. Ironically, that may have contributed to Pulisic starting on the bench.
When he entered in the 67th minute, however, the aggregate score was 2–1 and the outcome was still in doubt. Madrid (and former Chelsea) goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois kept his team in it, and as the visitors continued to control possession, it was easy to wonder whether this would become just one more example of Real somehow finding a way in Europe. Pulisic nailed the coffin shut, however, with five minutes remaining. He took a feed from Chelsea’s brilliant midfield engine, N’Golo Kanté, and forced Courtois and the Madrid defense to pause just long enough for Mason Mount to drift toward the near post. Pulisic’s pass from the right edge of the six-yard box was perfect, and Chelsea was en route to Istanbul.
Pulisic admitted following Wednesday’s win that he was frustrated by not starting, and that he’s “had to continue to prove myself over and over again.” But he’s figured out how to consistently turn that frustration into fuel. Regarding his contribution as a sub, he said, “I know what I have to do when I get on the field. I have to go on and do my bit, be creative and try to finish the game off strong. Luckily I was able to do that.”
Pulisic now has two goals and two assists in nine Champions League games this season, and he’s been in excellent form since returning from U.S. duty in late March. Ahead of the first leg, he talked about his increasing fitness and confidence and made a statement that, while focused on Madrid, beautifully fit this recent (and relative) surge of American success in Europe. U.S. players may not have the history, and they may not get the benefit of the doubt from the ghosts who often seem to decide these games. But increasingly, they have the skills to make a difference.
“Of course Real Madrid have their history and it’s not going to be an easy challenge. It’s about going there, respecting them, but also believing in what we stand for and what we do. It’s going to be a really good match-up between two big teams across Europe,” Pulisic said. “They are going to be calm and experienced, and we have to be in that same way. We are going to need to go out and have a lot of confidence. We belong here. We have really accomplished a lot to get to this point, and we need to believe in our ability.”
More so than ever, multiple Americans can make an honest claim to a place on soccer’s premier stage. It’s taken decades to get there. Technically, the winner in Istanbul will be the second American to claim the title. In the spring of 1997, midfielder/forward Jovan Kirovski, who’s now the LA Galaxy’s technical director, was 21 years old and in his first season with Borussia Dortmund when the German club upset Juventus in the Champions League final in Munich.
Kirovski didn’t make the squad that day. But he did play 27 minutes across two group-stage matches, so he could rightly add the title to his resume. In addition, Kirovski played 10 minutes in the Intercontinental Cup triumph over Cruzeiro later that year, becoming the first (and still only) American man to be considered a world champion.
The 24 years separating 1997 from now feel like multiple eras from a soccer perspective, in part because Kirovski was such an outlier. His dalliance with top-tier success was an exception, a harbinger of nothing. He left Dortmund in 2000 and was back in MLS by 2004.
Meanwhile, Americans continued to struggle in Europe, finding gigs primarily with smaller teams or in smaller leagues. It took another eight years for a second U.S. international to make the semifinal stage of the Champions League—DaMarcus Beasley did it in 2005 with PSV Eindhoven. And a third didn’t reach that point until Tyler Adams helped power RB Leipzig to last season’s final four. Leipzig had never reached that round before, and PSV hasn’t been there since. Those runs were exceptions as well. Neither club is considered European royalty.
This season, as strange as it’s been on so many levels, has felt like the tipping point. Americans (apart from MLS logo designers) have shown their traditional contempt for the entrenchment of royalty and the established order, infiltrating the sport’s top clubs to an unprecedented degree while contending for honors across Europe (see below). There were a record 10 U.S. players and a coach registered for this season’s Champions League group stage. Seven of those 10 were at clubs that have claimed the title before and another two—Steffen and Adams—were on sides expected to contend. Americans were no longer just hoping to hang around the fringes. They’d help shape the competition. And sure enough, eight made contributions to teams that reached the knockout stages.
Pulisic and Steffen reached the semis. Fittingly, as part of this new and uncharted American trajectory, both have had to deal with some adversity. U.S. players first much get to clubs like Chelsea and Man City before they’re everyday centerpieces. Steffen was signed to back up Ederson, and that’s what he’s done in Premier League and Champions League play. The vast majority of his minutes have come in domestic cup competitions. Steffen’s role in training still makes him an integral part of a Champions League finalist, but his participation has been limited to a group-stage start against Olympique Marseille in December (that 90 minutes still vaults him past Kirovski).
Pulisic has played a larger role at Chelsea during an up-and-down campaign in which some muscular issues and a January coaching change made consistency elusive. But he’s been healthy and effective over the past couple of months, earning more time as Tuchel’s team surged. Pulisic scored three goals in Premier League play in April and helped the Blues reach the FA Cup final (with a semifinal win over Steffen and City, of all teams), and his goal against Madrid was the first by a U.S. international at that stage of the tournament. While there’s no way to know now whether Pulisic will start in Istanbul, he’ll almost certainly feature in some capacity if fit, thus making him the first American man to play in a Champions League final. Steffen’s prospects depend on Ederson’s health, but a Manchester City triumph still would be meaningful for the USA No. 1.
The Champions League final will conclude a dizzying spring stretch played at unique heights for Americans in Europe. The “cup with the big ears” will be the exclamation point, but it’ll come at the end of a lengthy list of honors won. Here’s a breakdown of the U.S. clinchers and contenders as the 2020-21 season reaches its climax:
— Steffen and City already won the EFL Cup—he played all five games—and they’ll clinch the Premier League title soon. Steffen has just one league appearance this season, but it’s impossible to imagine the club withholding a medal from its backup keeper.
— Pulisic will get a second crack at the FA Cup when Chelsea plays Leicester City in the May 15 final. He scored in last season’s decider, which the Blues lost to Arsenal.
— Sergiño Dest and Barcelona won the Copa del Rey last month, and they’re still in the hunt for La Liga, trailing Atlético Madrid by two points with four games remaining.
— Adams (RB Leipzig) and Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) will face off in the DFB-Pokal final on May 13 in Berlin. Reyna scored twice in the 5-0 semifinal win over Holstein Kiel. Leipzig will be playing for its first major trophy.
— Weston McKennie and Juventus face Atalanta in the Coppa Italia final on May 19. Juve won the Italian Super Cup in January.
— Timothy Weah and Lille lead favorites PSG by a single point in Ligue 1 with three games left.
— RB Salzburg coach Jesse Marsch and midfielder Brenden Aaronson won the ÖFB Cup last weekend and have a six-point lead in the Austrian Bundesliga with four games to go.
— Mark McKenzie won the Belgian Cup with Genk. The defender came on as a late substitute to help secure a 2-1 win over Standard Liège in the April 25 final.
— Jordan Siebatcheu won the Swiss Super League championship with Bern’s Young Boys.
— Ian Harkes and Dillon Powers are part of the Dundee United team that booked a place in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semifinal against Hibernian.
— Haji Wright and SønderjyskE will face Randers in Denmark’s DBU Pokalen final on May 13.
Add it all up, and it’s still possible for Americans to win trophies in each of Europe’s “big five” countries, as well as eight of the top 11 in the UEFA ranking. There is U.S. representation, and success, like never before. And thanks to Wednesday’s result in London, that now extends to the biggest game of all.
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