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Christian Pulisic makes history by winning Champions League final and takes all of U.S. soccer along for the ride

The other Chelsea FC players walked to the trophy stand wearing just their royal blue uniforms to accept the medal signifying they had won the UEFA Champions League, the greatest honor in the club version of the world’s most popular sport. Christian Pulisic, though, wrapped what looked like a gray sweater around his body. It seemed an odd time to worry about the chill in Portugal’s night air, but he was entitled to comfort in such a magnificent moment.

As Chelsea’s celebration of its 1-0 victory over Manchester City lingered on the field at Estadio do Dragao, however, it became apparent Pulisic’s additional garment was there to make a statement. If one looked closely, when it still was draped backward over his shoulders, it was apparent there was a red, white and blue logo affixed to the chest. It was the U.S. Soccer crest.

By the time Pulisic got his moment with the trophy and was surrounded by his parents, Mark and Kelley, he’d pulled on the sweatshirt to show the world his true colors and present American men’s soccer with one of its greatest advertisements.

At 22, Pulisic became the first U.S. men’s national team member to play in a Champions League final, and the first to win it. This was a giant leap forward in the rapid evolution of American soccer.

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In the year he was born in Hershey, Pa., Major League Soccer had completed just its third season after the nation had gone without a major professional league for a dozen years. The U.S. men had ended a four-decade World Cup drought only eight years before. There were but a few from this country playing in the top European Leagues, only a few who ever had, among them John Harkes in England, Alexi Lalas in Italy, Claudio Reyna and Jovan Kirovski in Germany, where the latter was part of a 1997 Champions League winner for Borussia Dortmund but did not appear in the final.

If you were an American and the top clubs were interested, you probably were a goalkeeper, like Kasey Keller and Brad Friedel. The soccer world looked at Americans like Michael Caine sneered at Sylvester Stallone in “Victory.”

In 2021, though, Americans lifted league championship trophies in England, France and Austria and cup trophies in Germany, Spain and Italy. Right back Sergino Dest was a teammate of Lionel Messi at Barcelona. Midfielder Weston McKennie played with Cristiano Ronaldo at Juventus.

MORE: USMNT pioneers on the next step forward for Pulisic

And now the best current American, the player in line to become the greatest U.S. men’s player ever, has danced with the most prized trophy in the club game and served as an integral part of the winning team. A season that included too many injuries, a coaching change that rattled his standing with the team, but then a brilliant surge through the season’s biggest games ended with Pulisic raising his arms to the sky at the final whistle and then falling forward in a display of unbridled joy.

“I can’t even explain it,” Pulisic said in a broadcast interview following the game. “It’s still such a shock. It’s just incredible. I have no words. I’m so proud.”

The final did not progress as Pulisic would have dreamed it. He did not start for Chelsea, which he had in eight of the team’s past 12 games. Manager Thomas Tuchel opted for a bigger physical presence on the right wing, Germany’s 6-2 Kai Havertz, who had yet to score in Champions League. And it appeared Tuchel would pay for that decision when Havertz flubbed two excellent opportunities to score early in the first half, chances you know American fans were thinking would have been in the net had Pulisic been on the field.

MORE: Can UCL glory launch Pulisic in crossover stardom?

In the 42nd minute, though, Chelsea keeper Edouard Mendy started a move forward with a quick distribution to the left sideline, which left back Ben Chilwell neatly advanced to attacking midfielder Mason Mount. Havertz sprinted toward a gap between Manchester City’s central defenders, and Mount placed a sizzling pass that traveled 40 yards and found Havertz in stride. There was no one between him and Man City’s Ederson, so the goalkeeper rushed to the top of the box hoping to defuse the situation before Havertz could release a shot. Havertz made a neat move to the left and the keeper fell helpless to the turf. Havertz then rolled the ball toward the back of the net for what would stand as the game’s only goal.

When Pulisic entered the game in the 66th minute, there still was a chance for heroics, and there was such a moment: six minutes later, when he combined with Havertz on a foreboding move that ended with a pass to Pulisic on the right of the box, but then he fired his shot a foot wide of the far post.

“I wish I put away the chance I had,” he said. “I didn’t quite get under it like I wanted, but in the end, this team, we were always going to win this game. And I’m just so proud of them.

“I tried to just get under it. I thought the keeper did well to block the angle. And I just wasn’t slick enough; I couldn’t get under it. I kind of just pulled it. But hey, listen, we won. So I’m not thinking about it.”

Pulisic’s hard, right-hand slap to the turf verified his awareness he’d missed an opportunity for glory, but it only was delayed. It may be that his most significant contribution in the final was a body block he threw into forward Gabriel Jesus along the left sideline in the 89th minute to arrest a Manchester City attack. Instead of dashing up the field and putting Chelsea in jeopardy, City had to restart its move with a throw-in.

Pulisic’s gifts for the game had been on full display in the semifinal series win over Real Madrid, though, when he scored Chelsea’s first goal and created the third, which clinched advancement to the final. In no way was he along for the ride. With such players as Olivier Giroud, a World Cup winner with France; Moroccan veteran Hakim Ziyech; and young England talent Callum Hudson-Odoi on the bench, it was Pulisic trusted by Tuchel to help dig the ball out of opposing territory, possess it as long as possible and create whatever scoring chances were prudent.

“I’m just so proud, so proud to be here,” Pulisic said. “It’s been a difficult road for me. I couldn’t imagine winning the Champions League ever, in my life. And now I’m here.”

It’s not just Pulisic, though. All of U.S. men’s soccer can say the same. The biggest annual game in the sport now features an American champion. “It’s just crazy,” Pulisic said, and it was a perfect description.




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