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What Comes After Christian Pulisic’s Historic Champions League Title?

PORTO, PORTUGAL - MAY 29: Christian Pulisic of Chelsea celebrates with the Champions League Trophy alongside teammates Antonio Ruediger, Kai Havertz and Tammy Abraham following their team's victory during the UEFA Champions League Final between Manchester City and Chelsea FC at Estadio do Dragao on May 29, 2021 in Porto, Portugal. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/Getty Images

After Chelsea’s in-house shot-missing expert Timo Werner spent the first hour of this past weekend’s Champions League final missing shots, Christian Pulisic took over Werner’s spot up front, in doing so once again making U.S. men’s national team history as the team’s first player to participate in a UCL final. Pulisic’s young career is full of similar firsts: youngest hat-trick scorer in Chelsea history, Borussia Dortmund’s youngest Champions League goalscorer, youngest player to captain the USMNT, and now, the first ever American man to sing a Spice Girls song while dancing with the most coveted trophy in club soccer.

Pulisic’s season was inconsistent and his final was relatively uneventful—the best highlight is a two-way tie between the incredible run shown below and the post-win moment when his father made sure everyone could see the U.S. Soccer crest during celebrations—but nothing can cheapen the significance of what he accomplished. American soccer fans eagerly following the ups and downs of men’s players in Europe over the years have had to sustain ourselves on scattered moments of relative insignificance outside of the American soccer bubble. But Pulisic winning the Champions League while playing a vital role for his club is a pinnacle anyone would be proud of. His quality as a player has been obvious since he started getting first team minutes at Dortmund four years ago, and a UCL trophy serves as validation of his talent. Whatever qualifiers you want to slap on Pulisic, he will always be a Champions League winner.

Pulisic is the talisman of this generation of young Americans, though he’s far from the only dude to lift silverware at the end of this season. One year after Pulisic’s goal in an FA Cup final defeat was the high water mark for the USMNT’s collective European trophy quest, a healthy chunk of the Europe-based American player pool finished the year with a winner’s medal hanging from their necks. Sergiño Dest won the Copa del Rey with Barcelona; Weston McKennie played the entirety of Juventus’s Coppa Italia final win over Atalanta as well as their Supercoppa Italiana win over Napoli; Gio Reyna won the DFB-Pokal with Dortmund; Zac Steffen won the Premier League and League Cup with Manchester City; Tim Weah helped Lille unseat PSG as Ligue 1 champions; Brendan Aaronson thrived throughout RB Salzburg’s Austrian Bundesliga triumph (and already might be their best attacker heading into next season); Ethan Horvath won the Belgian Pro League with Brugge; Jordan Siebatcheu helped Young Boys run away with the Swiss Super League crown; and Mark McKenzie’s Genk won the Belgian Cup. If you want to count the near-misses and the ones who qualified for next season’s Champions League, the list is even longer. The 2020-21 season was a breakthrough campaign for the USMNT’s growing European cadre, and a UCL trophy is the best capstone you could ask for.

What matters now is whether or not this year’s achievements can be built upon, whether even more American players can achieve an even more success going forward. It is worth celebrating this title bounty, and to reduce these achievements solely to what they potentially mean for the United States’ World Cup chances would be to miss out on the most enjoyable part of the process. But the hard part of the U.S. finally growing into its own as a soccer nation is moving from firsts to a sustained level of greatness. We can look to both of the United States’ neighbors here for instructive examples: Alphonso Davies’s 2020 UCL win did not suddenly make Canada the best team in CONCACAF, and the Mexican national team’s European presence has been steadily declining throughout the recent past. Nothing is guaranteed.

It is therefore necessary to triangulate this year’s suite of impressive performances with how they carry on into next year. Ethan Horvath, for example, has played in just four games for Brugge over the past two campaigns, and he’s leaving the club this summer. McKennie’s scissor-kick goal against Barcelona was magnificent, though he was playing in unsuspectedly ideal conditions last season, which might not carry into the new season with a new coach. The U.S.’s forward picture is clearer than it was late last year, though Josh Sargent’s Werder Bremen was relegated and Daryl Dike came up just short in his heroic quest to get Barnsley into the Premier League. One (extremely) good year doesn’t necessarily mean good things for every player in the pool, in the same way it doesn’t mean consistent improvement.

The good news is, a majority of the non-title winning USMNT players seem headed for bigger roles or clubs next season. Reggie Cannon, Sargent, and Dike look likely to be headed to bigger clubs; Julian Green is in the midst of what appears to be a jaw-dropping redemption arc with a return to the Bundesliga next season; and former Bayern player Chris Richards delivered on his promise as a top-tier defender prospect once he got to Hoffenheim. And then there is the next class of youngsters. Justin Che is the latest American teenager headed to Bayern Munich, and he has all the makings of an extremely promising young player. MLS is replete with high-achieving teenagers, like Leipzig-bound Caden Clark, San Jose’s Cade Cowell, and Gianluca Busio, who just smacked this wondergoal this past weekend. Also, FC Dallas seems to exist at this point primarily as a factory farm of elite American talent, as just about every one of its young players is either linked with a big European club or in the process of joining one.

Nothing at the highest level is guaranteed for any young player, no matter their pedigree. But with this many youngsters knocking on the door, the odds are strong that a couple of them will develop into very good players and thus allow the U.S. to take that next step forward. The goal should be to arrive at a future where Pulisic’s heroics aren’t the oasis in a desert, and even if getting there will not necessarily be a smooth path, there’s reason to hope.

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