After the U.S. won its first ever World Cup in 2014, the next summer’s witnessed another historic moment for the country’s soccer team–this time in the form of a first ever Champions League victory. The 2017-18 season was a bit of a setback; the team was knocked out of the 2018 World Cup in the first round, and they lost to Mexico in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final. That all changed in Bavaria, however, as Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen earned a place in the 2018 Champions League final.
The USMNT used a similar formula to end the 2018 World Cup. Steffen and Pulisic both started the group stage, and were key players in the knockout rounds. Both players were then key to the USMNT’s run to the final, which was a sad end to a U.S. World Cup qualifying campaign in which the team has failed to qualify for the last two World Cups.
This is it. The World Cup final. France vs Croatia. After a long exhausting summer of traveling, playing, and ultimately, winning the World Cup for the United States, Christian Pulisic and the boys are about to take on Luka Modric and the boys in Paris.. Read more about christian pulisic and let us know what you think.The Champions League final is the final celebration of the clubs’ European season. And the approaching end of the campaign was unprecedented for American players.
Whether it’s Weston McKenney at Juventus, Tyler Adams at RB Leipzig or Giovanni Reina at Borussia Dortmund: American players have some of the biggest clubs in Europe on their minds. Americans have also won numerous trophies, from Timothy Vea for Ligue 1 champion Lille, to Brenden Aaronson who won the league and cup double with FC Salzburg, to McKenney who won the Coppa Italia and Reina who took the DFB Cup. In total, nine different players have been involved in winning 12 trophies.
Which brings us to Saturday’s Champions League final. On one side Chelsea with American striker Christian Pulisic, on the other Manchester City with American goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who has already become the first American in a winning Premier League team.
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These are not isolated examples of American involvement. Ten of these players were part of the Champions League squad when the group stage began in October. In addition to Pulisic and Steffen, the squad included Adams, McKenney, Reina, Club Brugge goalkeeper Ethan Horvath, Ajax striker Alex Mendes, Bayern defender Chris Richards (although he was later loaned to Hoffenheim) and Barcelona’s Sergino Dest and Conrad de la Fuente.
All of this underscores the fact that since Jovan Kirovski became the first – and still only – American to win a Champions League, almost everything in American soccer has gotten bigger. There isn’t a professional game on the planet that can’t be broadcast in some way over the American airwaves. At the national level, Major League Soccer (MLS) has 27 teams, and the women’s league seems more viable than ever thanks to the work of the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). When you look at the men’s national team, you can’t help but notice the players that the U.S. produces.
I think our players have grown, said Kirovski, who is now technical director of the Los Angeles Galaxy. There are players who have been there before, whether it’s me or former players who have been in Europe. I think the MLS has really given some of these kids a platform to perform. And indeed, we have grown. The kids who play in the big clubs? The choice is yours.
When Manchester City meet Chelsea on Saturday, either Zack Steffen or Christian Pulisic will win the Champions League. Visionhaus
Sunday’s Champions League final is the latest manifestation of that growth, but it has been a long road. American players have been moving to European countries since the late 1980s. Usually that meant going to one of the more remote parts of the continent; if an American managed to join a club in one of the top leagues in England, France, Germany, Italy or Spain, it was usually a team in the bottom half of the table. Then there was the age of the American players. When they crossed the Atlantic, most of them were already in their twenties. (Kirovski, who left Manchester United’s youth academy to join Dortmund at the age of 20, was an exception in both cases).
Since then, a steady, if pilot-like, rise has begun, with Pulisic’s move to Dortmund in 2016 proving to be a quantum leap. He moved with what is known in American football circles as a Golden Ticket (a Croatian passport that allows him to obtain European citizenship), which facilitated his move when he was 16, not 18. This allowed Pulisic to continue to develop at an age where American players have historically begun to fall behind their global counterparts. He quickly set league records for young players, becoming the youngest non-German striker in the Bundesliga and the youngest to score two goals in a league game.
When Pulisic joined Chelsea for $73.3 million in 2019. Since then he has had his ups and downs, and injuries have been a serious handicap. This also applies to the battle for seats. Still, Pulisic has proven to be a valuable member of the Blues’ team, even if he’s not always a starter.
Steffen’s course was more traditional. He went through junior college, including a season at Philadelphia Union Academy, and spent two years at the University of Maryland. He then spent 19 difficult months with the reserves of German club Freiburg before returning to the Columbus Crew in MLS.
Such a transfer was seen as a fatal blow to the player’s European ambitions. That wasn’t the case for Steffen, who rebuilt his game during his four seasons in Columbus, earning several playoff victories in the process. These performances led to a transfer to City, after which he returned to Germany to join Fortuna Düsseldorf.
Of the two options, Steffen’s path is the most encouraging for American players. There may be setbacks and failures, there may be difficult periods when you need to develop your game, but none of this prevents a player from succeeding in Europe one day. It takes more patience, and the potential gain is greater. Kirovski notes that he gets calls from big clubs about potential acquisitions that would have been unthinkable ten years ago.
It depends on case to case, but I think as a club you take the risk of playing [with American players] because the talent is there, Kirovski said. And you’ll probably miss more often than you arrive. But we did. I mean, look at Pulisic. He was at Dortmund, he was successful. He was bought by Chelsea for a reason, as he developed and achieved good results. He gets opportunities based on his ability to work, nothing more.
Looking back on his experiences at Dortmund, Kirovski remembers team stars like Andreas Moller and Karl-Heinz Riedle and how players like midfielder Paulo Souza and defender Julio Cesar collectively took him under their wing. He remembers that when he received his winner’s medal, he took it all in. He also thinks about the time that has passed.
God, I really am getting old, he said with a laugh.
This thought is counterbalanced by the direction he believes the United States is headed. And on Sunday, he’ll have company on the American Champions League team.
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