American men’s soccer remains, even with all the growth of Major League Soccer and the rise in popularity of the sport, very much a sleeping giant on the world stage.
Since making the semifinals of the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay, the U.S. men’s national team has advanced past the round of 16 at the quadrennial tournament just once, in 2002, and did not even qualify for the 2018 competition in Russia.
There have been American men who have gained acclaim internationally, from Landon Donovan to Claudio Reyna and Tim Howard to Brad Friedel. But there’s still a long way to go for it to be more than just a novelty that an American man is present in any meaningful way in global soccer.
Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final in Porto, Portugal, represented a huge step forward. With Christian Pulisic on the roster for Chelsea and Zack Steffen on Manchester City’s bench as backup goalkeeper, it was guaranteed that an American would claim a European champion’s medal for the first time since Californian forward Jovan Kirovski with German side Borussia Dortmund in 1997.
Kirovski, however, did not play in Dortmund’s 3-1 championship win over Juventus. He did appear in the Champions League group stages, and was an unused substitute in the semifinal, but was not on the team sheet for the final in Munich.
That meant, when Pulisic came on to replace Timo Werner in the 66th minute on Saturday, the 22-year-old from Hershey, Pa., became the first American man to play in a Champions League final.
There wasn’t a whole lot for Pulisic to do in an attacking role, as the task for Chelsea was to protect the lead gained on Kai Havertz’s goal in the closing minutes of the first half. Still, Pulisic acquitted himself well enough, nearly scoring on a counterattack in the 73rd minute. Ederson, the man ahead of Steffen on Pep Guardiola’s depth chart for the English Premier League and League Cup winners, got his arms out just enough to force Pulisic to shoot wide of the post.
With Pulisic doing his best to kill time up the field when Chelsea got the ball in the final stages of the match, the London team held on for the 1-0 victory, and 24 years after Kirovski made history by getting a champion’s medal with Dortmund, Pulisic is the first American man to take part in a Champions League final victory. His next task? Getting this country back to the World Cup, as the USMNT’s qualifying campaign gets going in September. That might be harder than knocking off a Guardiola side in a European championship match.