Pulisic or Steffen? American Champions League winner awaits
It has been 24 years since Jovan Kirovski became the first American player to earn a Champions League winner’s medal.
It is sure to happen for the second time on Saturday.
In what will be a landmark occasion for the U.S. game, Manchester City and Chelsea will have American representation in their squads for the title match of club soccer’s biggest competition.
Zack Steffen will almost certainly be on the bench for City, unless there’s a last-minute injury to first-choice goalkeeper Ederson Moraes, while Christian Pulisic has a good chance of starting for Chelsea.
Pulisic, in particular, is on the threshold of history because no American has ever played in a Champions League final, much less started one.
Kirovski didn’t play a minute in the knockout stage during Borussia Dortmund’s run to the title in the 1996-97 season. Indeed, he wasn’t on the roster for the final against Juventus, meaning his only minutes came via two substitute appearances in the group stage.
A winner’s medal for Steffen would also come with something of an asterisk, given he has only played once for City in the Champions League this season — against Marseille in the final group game, when the team had already advanced. He kept a clean sheet, with City winning 3-0.
Pulisic’s impact has been far more telling.
Take the semifinals, for example, when he scored the crucial away goal in Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Real Madrid in the first leg, dribbling around goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and finding the net through a mass of Madrid defenders. It was the first time an American had scored in a Champions League semifinal match.
Then, in the second leg, it was another piece of individual skill from Pulisic, who again skipped past Courtois and then waited to deliver a pass from the byline, that set up the second goal — converted by Mason Mount — which sealed Chelsea’s spot in the final.
The 22-year-old Pulisic has yet to explode in his injury-hit two years at Chelsea following a move from Borussia Dortmund for $73 million as the most expensive American player in soccer history, but the final three months of this season have been encouraging.
Jürgen Klinsmann, who first called up Pulisic to the national team as United States coach, told The Associated Press that the Pennsylvania native has been learning to handle the pressure of playing for high-profile clubs.
“He went through a huge learning curve, maturing process, which he’s still in,” Klinsmann said, “and he worked under several different coaches, which gives you all different information. It doesn’t mean that you’re always on the same page, but you just try to take the best out of every relationship in every environment.”
Pulisic recognizes that.
“I’ve come very far,” Pulisic told CBS Sports ahead of the final. “There have been some real ups, also some times where I had some really difficult moments. I’m happy with the way I’m feeling.”
Key to that is Pulisic trusting his body after a difficult first half of the season in which he was hampered by persistent hamstring injuries. He had hobbled off with the same injury during the FA Cup final loss to Arsenal in August and the club ended up devising a tailored training plan for him.
Pulisic has only established himself as a regular — be that as a starter or a guaranteed impact sub — from March under Thomas Tuchel, who replaced Frank Lampard as manager in January.
Pulisic’s numbers aren’t outstanding — he has four goals and set up three more in the Premier League this season — but then again few players at Chelsea have shone in attack under Tuchel, whose priority has been shoring up the defense and making the team hard to beat.
The stats only tell half the story, though, when it comes to Pulisic, who plays a key role is causing chaos in a difficult-to-pick-up role between the lines of the opposition’s midfield and defense. Chelsea’s likely three strike force against City will be Timo Werner, Mason Mount and either Pulisic or Kai Havertz. Only Werner will play on the shoulder of City’s center backs, and even then he’ll pick his moments because his tracking back and defensive work are just as important to Tuchel.
Pulisic will likely only have small pockets of space to operate in against a hard-working City team that presses well, and his role will be to make things happen in the expected rare occasions that Chelsea get to hurt Pep Guardiola’s team.
“I think he’s now far more demanding in his game,” Klinsmann said. “He wants the ball continuously and he wants to put a stamp on the game with his presence on the field. And it’s not very easy to do that at Chelsea because we all know how big the competition is there.
“There’s a rotation in place from the manager that, you know, brings people in and out. You come from the bench. You start a game and again maybe come from the bench. That is a huge learning curve because you still got to keep your spirit up.”
Pulisic is an entertainer on the field, but he has said he doesn’t care how Chelsea’s players earn the win — just as long as they do.
“It is great to watch entertaining, attacking and free-flowing football all the time,” he said, “but when it gets to the end of the season, results matter.”
An American winner will cap a breakthrough season in the Champions League for the United States, with a record 10 players from the country eligible for group-stage play. That included Weston McKennie at Juventus and Sergiño Dest at Barcelona, two of the biggest teams in Europe.
They are sure to be looking on with pride, and no doubt a hint of jealousy, at Steffen and Pulisic this weekend.
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