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Christian Pulisic in Champions League final: USMNT pioneers on the next step forward for American soccer

Chelsea Football Club is based in an upscale neighborhood of London, not far from the River Thames. It is owned by a Russian billionaire, Roman Abramovich. The team is managed by a German, Thomas Tuchel, and populated by stars players from Spain, France, England and Senegal. So it may surprise those who have followed the team across some portion of its 116-year history that the Blues’ appearance in the 2021 Champions League final can be traced to a sunny day in Trinidad more than three decades ago.

Every advance in American men’s soccer since is, in some way, connected to November 19, 1989, and the goal scored by U.S. men’s national team midfielder-for-a-day Paul Caliguiri in the 31st minute against Trinidad & Tobago. That created a 1-0 USMNT victory which qualified the U.S. for its first World Cup appearance in 40 years.

A lifelong defender moved to a defensive midfield position for that particular matchup, Caliguiri accepted a pass from teammate Tab Ramos, cut to his right past one man, then back to his left and launched a left-footed shot from outside the box that soared toward the goal, then dropped like a forkball over the keeper’s shoulder and into the net.

Since that day, the U.S. men have played in seven World Cups, advanced in four of them and reached the quarterfinals in 2002, where they lost by just a goal to eventual finalist Germany. They have won the regional Gold Cup six times over rival Mexico and CONCACAF’s other top teams. This spring alone, players who have appeared with the USMNT have won league titles in such nations as France, England and Austria and cup trophies in Germany, Spain and Italy.

All of this is a preamble to the biggest opportunity to date: 22-year-old Christian Pulisic playing a significant role for Chelsea in the UEFA Champions League final Saturday against Manchester City. Pulisic is likely to become the first U.S. man to appear in this game.

MORE: Everything you need to know about the Champions League final

It is assured an American will earn a winner’s medal for only the second time – Jovan Kirovski was a reserve for Borussia Dortmund’s 1997 championship team – because USMNT goalkeeper Zack Steffen is Man City’s backup at the position.

The Champions League final is the biggest annual game in world soccer, and Pulisic’s performance in the semifinal against Real Madrid is the salient reason the Blues will compete for their second European Cup trophy. He scored the team’s only goal in the first leg with a patient dismantling of veteran goalkeeper Thibault Courtois, then clinched it by unsettling Courtois a second time and feeding teammate Mason Mount for an easy tap-in in the home finale of the two-game series.

Merely appearing in the final will mark another enormous milestone for U.S. men’s soccer. So what do those who have broken other competitive barriers over the past three decades think of what Pulisic has done – and what might happen Saturday against Man City?

Alexi Lalas

Lalas, now Fox Sports lead studio analyst and host of the State of the Union podcast, excelled as a central defender for the U.S. men’s national team at the 1994 World Cup in the U.S. His performance caught the eye of scouts for Calcio Padova, and he became the first American player to perform in Italy’s Serie A, making 44 appearances over two seasons.

“No. 1, I feel incredible pride. Because I’m an old guy – relative to Christian, certainly. Which means I’ve seen a lot in the days that I’ve been involved in the game. I’ve seen the ways it has grown, the ups and the downs. This has always been a consistent – daily, weekly, monthly, yearly – battle for credibility, for relevance and, ultimately, for respect.

“And so when someone like Christian, who grew up in the States and did a lot of the things young boys and girls do growing up in the States in terms of playing soccer, finds himself at this moment, at this pinnacle, you can’t help but be incredibly moved.

“The Americanness we traveled with was, at times, a burden. But it also created a healthy chip on our shoulder to prove people wrong. Or, more importantly, to prove the perception wrong. Look: The only reason I had the opportunity to go to Italy was because I starred in a World Cup. If you’re looking at the generation now, they don’t have to do that. There’s so many more pathways and opportunities that don’t require you to do it at the very highest level in front of the world.

“When you can see someone like Christian Pulisic, and you can emulate it, and you can aspire to doing these things, that’s great not just for the game of soccer but for young players out there, to have these touchstones that inspire you.”

Brian Dunseth

Dunseth, now co-host of “Counter Attack” weekdays on SiriusXM and a game analyst for Real Salt Lake, ESPN and FS1, played for the 2000 U.S. men’s Olympic team that played for the bronze medal at the Sydney Games (jersey No. 2, photo below).

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“I think it gives hope. I think it gives aspiration for all the young players. I go back to my timeline and thinking about Claudio Reyna and Harkesy (John Harkes) and Eric Wynalda – all the guys that went overseas. Johnny O’Brien, who was my age and left for Ajax when I was playing club soccer in southern California. They all provided, I think, this pride for U.S. soccer and for all of us. Like: Yeah, man, Americans can make it.

It was the start of breaking barriers. It’s just this kind of slow burn of growth, changing the mentality of how the world sees American soccer players. It’s not just, “Hey, they’ve got a great mentality. They work hard. They compete.” We’re starting to be known for our technical ability, and just being good soccer players. Nationality doesn’t come into play.

When I look at Christian, he’s kind of a unicorn, how talented he is. But when you put that in conjunction with Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna and Tyler Adams, just to name a few … it continues to smash down the doors of, “Are they Americans or just good soccer players”?

Nothing surprises me anymore with Christian. If you go back and watch Christian with Borussia Dortmund, before he made the move to Chelsea, there’s a couple of instances where he’s turning Sergio Ramos inside-out. And I think that’s why you saw on a few different occasions, there’s a respect that’s given to him by just absolutely walloping him. And some of those hard fouls he’s taking, like the one from Toni Kroos in particular, they’re recognizing how dangerous he is.”

Maurice Edu

Edu, now Fox Sports studio analyst, moved from Toronto FC to Rangers of the Scottish Premier League after winning Major League Soccer’s Rookie of the Year award. In his first season with Rangers, 2008-09, the team won both the league and the Scottish Cup, although he missed the cup final because of an injury. Rangers won the Premier League three times during his four seasons with the club.

“I think it’s incredible for me – as a fan, as a former player – to see him reach such heights in such a short amount of time. You think about his career, he’s still relatively young in his career, still relatively young in age. To get to this point, to have this opportunity to now—not just play in Champions League but actually to be playing in a final, potentially starting in a final, at the highest level, playing for what is the ultimate prize at the club level.

“I think that’s a special thing for American fans watching.

“He rose to prominence pretty quickly, especially here in the States. We kind of anointed him as the chosen one for our national team. He’s welcomed that pressure. He’s taking it on. He’s taking on that responsibility.

“Having two Americans, when they both won their semifinal matches, the first thought that was in everyone’s mind as an American fan, anyone who follows soccer from an American perspective, we’re going to have an American Champions League winner. To most current American fans, unless you’re really into stats, you don’t really remember that Jovan won a Champions League. In many people’s minds, this is the first chance for an American to win a Champions League.

“We’re really enamored by this young group of players and the talent that they have, the clubs they’re playing at, this is just another confirmation of the quality these players have.”

Jay DeMerit

DeMerit, now operating the Rise and Shine soccer camps in the Pacific Northwest, scored the game-winning goal in England’s promotion final that made Watford a Premier League team and made 183 appearances for them over six seasons with the club. He also started in central defense as the USMNT defeated Spain – ending its 35-game unbeaten streak – to reach the 2009 Confederations Cup final.

“Once somebody does something, then the other players pick up on that. I’ve really loved the progression of the U.S. Soccer European player. There was that first wave of Lalas going to Italy, or Claudio Reyna captaining Man City, these were the types of guys that really paved the way for Brian McBride and Carlos Bocanegra to come through and do well at Fulham. Those guys were kind of my role models; Brian McBride, a kid from Chicago gets out and is doing very well in the Premier League. For me as a kid from the Midwest, a kid from Wisconsin that kind of looked up to Brian, I’m like: Why can’t I do that at Watford? It’s not that I was putting myself on the same pedestal at the time, but it definitely helped.

“I think what Christian’s been able to do is accept the role, first, of coming to the Premier League and wanting that success. Before we used to be just happy to be there, because we were Americans that made it to Europe. But then Tim Howard wins goalkeeper of the year for the whole Premier League at Manchester United – that was right when I landed on British shores. For me to have that … it really helped with my confidence.

“As Christian moves to not just getting the opportunity to play in the Premier League but now leadership roles within Chelsea, which I think he is … he’s relished in that opportunity. I think that’s what he brings the most. It’s almost like a deserved confidence. I like to see that.

“I would say that’s happening all across the board, with our young players all over Europe. These aren’t just guys that have made amazing European rosters. These are guys that are contributing every week, playing alongside the best players in the world, like Ronaldo.”

Stuart Holden

Holden, lead game analyst for Fox Sports, moved to Bolton Wanderers of the Premier League after three seasons and two MLS Cup titles with the Houston Dynamo. At Bolton in 2010-11, Holden became a starter in midfield and helped the club reach the semifinals of the FA Cup and a seventh-place standing with two months remaining in the season. Even though a broken leg ended his season, he earned the club’s player of the year award, a rare honor for an American on a Premier League team.

“I was thinking about this the other day, games in the past that felt big, those experiences you keep with you for the rest of your life. I have these incredible snapshots kind of banked away of stepping on the field in the World Cup for the first time, or stepping in the Premier League and making my debut. I was thinking about this moment for Christian, and while you’re in it, you’re in it. You know that it’s a big game, but I don’t think you quite contextualize that in terms of your career.

“When you think about the opportunity for Christian, the rare chance you get in your life to play in such a big game, that means so much and is something that will go down in history but also such a big part of your life – you don’t get many of these opportunities, and you try to make the most of them.

“To have an American lifting the Champions League trophy, with where the game is in the United States right now, it just kind of validates that American soccer players in general are here to stay, will be a big part of the international transfer market and are only getting better.

“I hope that Christian gets that moment, standing on that stage and holding that trophy.”



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