The story is usually looked at in hindsight, so it is not always obvious at the time it is being made. We are distracted by the demands of the occasion and the day to day. We are focused on the now. Discreet incidents and achievements pile up and become history, but in the process, when, for example, the games pile up and bleed into each other and there is hardly any time to reflect or remember because there is another match in three days, the The big picture can be impossible to contemplate.
Christian Pulisic and / or Zack Steffen will make history on Saturday. One of them will win the UEFA Champions League, becoming the second American player to do so. Should anyone appear in the all-English final between Pulisic’s Chelsea and Steffen’s Manchester City, he will become the first American man to compete on the most prestigious stage of the club game. At the end of a pioneering European season during which nine US national team players and several other Americans won league and / or cup titles, one will crown you with the most significant crown of all.
When Jovan Kirovski won the Champions League as a 20-year-old substitute for Borussia Dortmund in 1997, he was an outlier. It was a coincidence. But now it feels different. If the recent trajectory of Americans abroad continues, Pulisic or Steffen will be a harbinger. However, neither the forward nor the goalkeeper, both from Pennsylvania, are willing to accept that for now. It has been a long campaign and there is a game in Porto to prepare and win. The story is for later.
“I think that we are not going to fully understand and understand the situation until maybe the summer or next season, or in a couple of seasons, because we are in it and that is our goal, to go to these finals and win these finals and raise these trophies. ”Steffen told MLSSoccer.com. “But from the outside looking in, I can imagine it’s crazy.”
When asked about the importance of this final to the growth of American soccer, Pulisic told NBC that he hadn’t really thought about it.
“It’s more like a personal goal, like a team goal,” he said. “I want to go out there and win that thing before I think of anything else, to be honest. I mean, it’s amazing. And also, Zack on the other team. Who would have thought, two guys from Pennsylvania? I can see how that is a huge thing and it makes me very proud. But I’m focused on this game and I want to win this game. “
That focus and determination has helped each of them navigate seasons that were anything but indulgent. In addition to the protocols, empty stadiums and compressed schedules required by the pandemic, both Pulisic and Steffen faced their share of personal challenges. The progress of American football in Europe is far from linear, and there are a whole new set of obstacles awaiting those who make it to the biggest clubs. For Steffen, 26, it was accepting a role as Ederson’s endorsement and continuing to find ways to improve, grow and be in his prime for the national team while playing only occasionally for City. For the 22-year-old Pulisic, he stayed healthy, smart and confident as Chelsea spent hundreds of millions of pounds during a summer spree and then fired her manager mid-season.
“I have learned a lot. “I’ve come a long way,” Pulisic told CBS. “There have been some real improvements, also a few times where I have had really difficult times. I am happy with my form now. I am happy with the way I feel. I am confident.”
Said Steffen: “Either you’re going to grow up or you will be fired very soon.
The magnitude of his stamina and accomplishments is certainly not lost on American coach Gregg Berhalter, who spent 15 years toiling in the Netherlands, England and Germany before ending his playing career with the LA Galaxy. He is well aware of how high the mountain is and how historically Pulisic and Steffen have climbed.
“It’s amazing. I can’t say enough about it, how proud we are of our players,” Berhalter said this week from Switzerland, where the USA is preparing for Sunday’s friendly against the hosts before traveling to Denver for the final of the Concacaf Nations League (Steffen and Pulisic will join the team in Colorado).
Steffen will play on Saturday only if something happens to Ederson, but will still be considered a Champions League winner if City triumph, and will have played a role in the campaign thanks to a 3-0 shutout over Olympique Marseille in December. . Steffen’s contribution to the club’s fifth Premier League crown in 10 years was similar. But after returning from his 2019-20 loan to Fortuna Düsseldorf and a knockout knee injury last spring, the cup competitions were all his. He supported City in the FA Cup semi-finals (where they lost to Chelsea, of all teams) and the 2021 EFL Cup title. His finger tip jump save on a curling iron in the second half by Giovani Lo Celso preserved City’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham Hotspur in last month’s EFL Cup final.
Overall, Steffen has played only 12 games in 2020-21. That is not ideal for a goalkeeper who is entering his prime. But the environment, training and competition in Manchester have helped him improve, he said mid-season.
“The talent they have at that club, just to train with those guys every day, it’s making me better,” Steffen said. “It’s pushing me in a way that I definitely wasn’t pushed in the past at different levels in my career. … Only in all respects is it faster. It is faster. It is more intense. It is sharper. You really have to be focused and focused and a little bit on your game every day, every workout. You can’t take days off. “
This week, Berhalter praised Steffen’s willingness to put himself in that situation, at that level, and compete.
When I think of Zack, he is bravery. It is courageous to say ‘I will stay here even if my playing time is limited’. But I am going to be learning and I am going to be part of a project that is massive, ‘”said the manager. “He had to make that decision on his own, and it is not an easy decision to make. When I look back at this year, I would say that it has definitely improved. He’s definitely progressed, and that’s all you want from a player, so a very successful year. “
In London, Pulisic has also not played as often as he would like. Concerns about his possible frailty increased in the fall as he missed several games due to muscle injuries. Then when he started to recover and get stronger, Chelsea reached a crossroads and replaced Frank Lampard with Thomas Tuchel, Pulisic’s former coach at Borussia Dortmund. However, his familiarity did not seem to help the player, as Pulisic used to be used as a substitute while Tuchel got to know the team.
Things started to look up in early April, when Pulisic scored in back-to-back Premier League games, and peaked – thus far – with his outstanding performance in the Champions League semi-finals against Real Madrid. Pulisic scored in the 1-1 draw in Madrid, then had an assist in the decisive 2-0 at Stamford Bridge. His post-game comments about having to prove himself “over and over again” went viral.
Pulisic may not start the final on Saturday. But Chelsea probably won’t be there without him.
“It sure has been a crazy couple of years,” Pulisic told NBC. “I think I am proud of how far I have come, not only as a player but also as a person. People don’t see that side. It has been a big change for me. … The Premier League has definitely made me much stronger, especially physically and also mentally with all the matches and the constant pressure match after match.
Berhalter said: “When I think of [Pulisic], it is simply relentless. He’s a guy who doesn’t give up. And we had a lot of conversations and we kept encouraging him, saying, ‘You have the quality. Keep going.’ He’s a guy who showed he can talk on the field and that’s what we’re most proud of – the way he got back on the field, the way he gained a starting position and then the way he kept persevering and performing was really great. . “
After one of them lifts the trophy in Porto, the job is not yet finished. There’s the League of Nations, then a summer break, then it quickly starts again. Can Steffen challenge Ederson for more Premier League minutes? Can personal and positional growth continue, even during a second season as a backup? Will Pulisic be able to escape Tuchel’s revolving door and cement a place as the Premier League’s leading attacker, thus picking up the Chelsea mantle left behind by Eden Hazard? Obstacles and expectations will mount, and Steffen or Pulisic will have a Champions League gold medal that they will likely forget on occasion.
That is the nature of making history. Berhalter, however, is in charge of putting together the big picture. So he is very aware of what Saturday’s game represents and has moved for it.
“When you think about having two Americans now playing in the final of the Champions League, it gives me goose bumps thinking about that,” he said. “It’s an incredible feeling, and we will be watching, supporting and proud of both of you.”
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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.