Towards the end, the only obstacle separating American football from a guaranteed and rewarding part of history was Real Madrid, the club that embodies an ingrained old-world pedigree and that often seems to be playing 12 or more these nights. culminating Europeans.
But like so many barriers before during this unrivaled season for Americans abroad, mighty Madrid fell. Chelsea, boosted by a Christian Pulisic goal in the first leg and a grueling assist in the decisive match of Wednesday’s semi-final, deservedly defeated the visiting Spaniards, 2-0 on the night and 3-1 on aggregate, thus qualifying for the third final of the club’s UEFA Champions League. . However, this one won’t be like the others, at least on this side of the Atlantic, because an American (and a Pennsylvanian) will now surely win the Champions League in 2021.
Chelsea will face Manchester City, who employ US goalkeeper Zack Steffen, in the competition’s third all-English final on 29 May in Istanbul. Londoners will play for their second continental championship (2012), while City will play for their first. While the occasion will represent a zero-sum game for the clubs, it is a win-win for American football. Pulisic or Steffen will lift the trophy when it’s all over.
While Steffen was in reserve when City beat Paris Saint-Germain in the first semi-final on Tuesday, Pulisic was a main protagonist when Chelsea eliminated the 13-time European champion. His exquisite goal last week brought the Blues to a 1-1 draw in Madrid, giving Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel the freedom to approach Wednesday’s second leg with a little more pragmatism. Ironically, that may have helped Pulisic get started at the bank.
When he came in in the 67th minute, however, the aggregate score was 2-1 and the result was still in doubt. Madrid goalkeeper (and former Chelsea) Thibaut Courtois kept his team in it, and as the visitors continued to control possession, it was easy to wonder if this would become yet another example of how Real somehow find a way in. Europe. Pulisic closed the coffin, however, with five minutes remaining. It fed on Chelsea’s brilliant midfield engine, N’Golo Kanté, and forced Courtois and the Madrid defense to stop long enough for Mason Mount to swerve to the first post. Pulisic’s pass from the right edge of the six-yard box was perfect, and Chelsea was on its way to Istanbul.
Pulisic admitted after Wednesday’s win that he was frustrated not being a starter and that “I had to keep proving myself over and over again.” But you’ve figured out how to constantly turn that frustration into fuel. Regarding his contribution as a substitute, he said: “I know what I have to do when I enter the field. I have to go on and do my bit, be creative and try to finish the game strong. Luckily I was able to do that.”
Pulisic now has two goals and two assists in nine Champions League games this season, and has been in excellent shape since returning from service in the United States in late March. Before the first leg, he spoke about his growing fitness and confidence and made a statement that, while focused on Madrid, was a perfect fit for this recent (and relative) wave of American successes in Europe. American gamers may not have the story, and they may not get the benefit of the doubt from the ghosts that often seem to decide these games. But increasingly, they have the skills to make a difference.
“Of course Real Madrid has its history and it will not be an easy challenge. It’s about going there, respecting them, but also believing in what we stand for and do. It’s going to be a really good matchup between two great teams from Europe, ”said Pulisic. “They will be calm and experienced, and we have to be in the same way. We’re going to need to go out there and be very confident. We belong here. We have really accomplished a lot to get to this point and we must believe in our ability. “
More than ever, several Americans can honestly claim a spot on the main stage of soccer. It took 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 is now the LA Galaxy’s technical director, was 21 years old and in his first season with Borussia Dortmund when the German club defeated Juventus in the League final. of Champions in Munich.
Kirovski did not make the team that day. But he played 27 minutes in two group stage games, so he could rightly add the title to his resume. Additionally, Kirovski played 10 minutes in the Intercontinental Cup win over Cruzeiro that same year, becoming the first (and still only) American to be considered a world champion.
The 24 years that separate 1997 from now feel like multiple eras from a soccer perspective, in part because Kirovski was an outlier. His flirtation with top-notch success was an exception, a harbinger of nothing. He left Dortmund in 2000 and returned to MLS in 2004.
Meanwhile, the Americans continued to fight in Europe, finding gigs mostly with smaller teams or in smaller leagues. A second US international took another eight years to reach the Champions League semi-final stage; DaMarcus Beasley did it in 2005 with PSV Eindhoven. And a third didn’t get to that point until Tyler Adams helped propel RB Leipzig to the final four of last season. Leipzig had never made it to that round and PSV haven’t been there since. Those races were also exceptions. Neither club is considered European royalty.
This season, as strange as it has been on many levels, has felt like the turning point. Americans (aside from MLS logo designers) have shown their traditional disregard for the entrenchment of royalty and the established order, infiltrating the sport’s best clubs to an unprecedented degree as they compete for honors across Europe ( see below). There was a record 10 American players and one coach signed up for the group stage of the Champions League this season. Seven of those 10 were in clubs that have claimed the title before and two others, Steffen and Adams, were in sides that were expected to compete. Americans no longer just hoped to stay on the sidelines. They would help shape the competition. And sure enough, eight made contributions to the teams that reached the knockout stages.
Pulisic and Steffen reached the semifinals. Fittingly, as part of this new and unexplored American trajectory, both have had to deal with some adversity. American players arrive first at clubs like Chelsea and Man City before becoming everyday centerpieces. Steffen was hired to back Ederson, and that is what he has done in the Premier League and the Champions League. The vast majority of his minutes have come in national cup competitions. Steffen’s role in training still makes him an integral part of a Champions League finalist, but his involvement has been limited to a group stage start against Olympique de Marseille in December (those 90 minutes still make him outnumber Kirovski).
Pulisic has played a bigger role at Chelsea during a bumpy season in which some muscle problems and a manager change in January made consistency elusive. But he has been healthy and efficient for the past few months, gaining more time as Tuchel’s team grew. Pulisic scored three Premier League goals in April and helped the Blues reach the FA Cup final (with a semi-final win over Steffen and City, of all teams), and his goal against Madrid was his first. of an American international at that stage of the tournament. While there is no way to know now if Pulisic will start in Istanbul, it is almost certain that he will show up in some way if he is fit, making him the first American to play in a Champions League final. Steffen’s prospects hinge on Ederson’s health, but a Manchester City win would still be significant for the US No. 1.
The Champions League final will conclude a dizzying spring streak played at heights unique to Americans in Europe. The “big eared cup” will be the exclamation point, but it will appear at the bottom of a long list of honors earned. Here’s a breakdown of the US candidates and contenders as the 2020-21 season reaches its climax:
– Steffen and City have already won the EFL Cup – he played all five games – and will soon take the Premier League title. Steffen only has one appearance in the league this season, but it’s impossible to imagine the club withholding a medal from their substitute goalkeeper.
– Pulisic will get a second FA Cup chance when Chelsea face Leicester City in the final on 15 May. He scored in last season’s deciding game, which the Blues lost to Arsenal.
– Sergiño Dest and Barcelona won the Copa del Rey last month, and are still in pursuit of the League, behind Atlético de Madrid by two points with four games to play.
– Adams (RB Leipzig) and Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) will meet in the DFB-Pokal final on May 13 in Berlin. Reyna scored twice in the 5-0 semi-final victory over Holstein Kiel. Leipzig will play for their 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 favorite PSG by a single point in Ligue 1 with three games to go.
– 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 in as a late substitute to help secure a 2-1 win over Standard Liège in the final on April 25.
– Jordan Siebatcheu won the Swiss Super League championship with the Young Boys from Bern.
– Ian Harkes and Dillon Powers are part of the Dundee United team that booked a spot in Saturday’s Scottish Cup semi-final against Hibernian.
– Haji Wright and SønderjyskE will face Randers in the final of Denmark’s DBU Pokalen on May 13.
Adding it all up, the Americans can still win trophies in each of Europe’s “big five” countries, as well as eight of the top 11 in the UEFA rankings. America is represented and successful like never before. And thanks to Wednesday’s result in London, that now extends to the biggest game of all.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.