The Outlooks for an Unprecedented Number of Americans in the Champions League

Ten American players and one coach brace for the Champions League stage, with the degree of expected involvement differing across the board.
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The word "unprecedented" has been batted around the U.S. soccer sphere plenty in the last couple of years. There was Christian Pulisic's "unprecedented" $73 million move to Chelsea in January 2019. A couple of months ago, Tyler Adams did the "unprecedented" by scoring the goal that sent RB Leipzig to the Champions League semifinals. More recently, there's been Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest's "unprecedented" transfers to Juventus and Barcelona, respectively.

Another of the "unprecedented" achievements will get put into practice starting this week, when the new Champions League campaign kicks off and 10 Americans will be eligible for selection, an "unprecedented" amount of U.S.-eligible players in the competition (and beyond that, there's manager Jesse Marsch, too).

Not all opportunities are alike as it relates to the Americans taking part in the tournament, though. Here's what you can expect from all of them as Europe's premier competition kicks off:

Sergino Dest, Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna brace for the Champions League stage.

Christian Pulisic, Chelsea

Pulisic is fully back from injury for Chelsea, making his first start of the season over the weekend, which followed his first cameo off the bench. Chelsea, which spent big to augment its attack this summer, hasn't been in need of reinforcements in the final third; it's in the back where the Blues have capitulated to the tunes of 3–3 draws vs. West Brom and Southampton. Yet Pulisic's reintegration will help solidify Chelsea going forward in what is a sneaky-tricky-yet-very-winnable group. The road begins at home vs. reigning Europa League winner Sevilla, with matches against Krasnodar and Rennes to follow.

According to U.S. Soccer, the 22-year-old Pulisic already holds the record for most Champions League appearances for an American, with 26, and that number will only grow provided he remains healthy throughout this season's edition. Now donning the No. 10 shirt, Pulisic enters Tuesday with three goals and three assists in his career in Champions League play. The record for U.S. players for each category is four.

Gio Reyna, Borussia Dortmund

Reyna saw the field in the Champions League briefly last season, with a pair of appearances (and an assist) off the bench in the last 16 vs. PSG, but he's poised for a considerably more significant role this time around.

Now entrenched as a key part of the Dortmund attack, the 17-year-old Reyna can make an even bigger mark, and the group he's in is a favorable one. Tuesday's opener at Lazio is likely to be the most difficult match (on paper), with Zenit Saint Petersburg and Club Brugge the other teams in Dortmund's quartet.

Tyler Adams, RB Leipzig

Adams's heroics in last season's quarterfinals won't be forgotten, but goal-scoring isn't where he's most valuable to Leipzig's cause. In a group featuring PSG, Manchester United and Istanbul Basaksehir, Leipzig is going to be tested frequently and will need someone of Adams's ilk to cut out the threats from the opposition, keep possession and help set the tempo. That's where Adams thrives, and now that he's returned from a minor back injury, it's how he can help his side the most. Leipzig begins with what should be its easiest match in the group, at home against Istanbul.

Weston McKennie, Juventus

It's hard to say what McKennie's contributions will be, but one thing that's certain is that he'll miss at least Juventus's first group game after contracting COVID-19. Along with Cristiano Ronaldo, McKennie will miss Juve's Tuesday match against Dynamo Kiev, and potentially the subsequent match next week against Barcelona. 

McKennie had started his first two games with Juve after making his summer move from Schalke. He has one Champions League campaign under his belt, making six appearances (four starts) and scoring one goal in the 2018–19 group stage.

Sergiño Dest, Barcelona

Dest has jumped right into Barcelona's XI after making his move from Ajax, and it looks like he'll be starting off the bat in the club's quest to return to European prominence. The opener vs. Ferencvaros figures to be as good of an easing-in moment for him in the Champions League with his new club, though he does already have brief experience on the stage after appearing in five group matches (and three qualifying-round games) last season. Whether he'll appear on the left or right remains to be seen. Jordi Alba's injury has given Ronald Koeman a need at left back, though Junior Firpo could feasibly cover on that side as well. Matches vs. Juventus and Dynamo Kiev are also on the docket, with Barcelona fully expected to progress to the knockout rounds.

Zack Steffen, Manchester City

Steffen has fared well in his brief opportunities in goal for Man City (two League Cup appearances so far), but as long as Ederson is healthy (and not suspended), the presumptive U.S. No. 1 will remain a backup throughout the Champions League campaign. If he does get a shot in the competition, it would mark the 25-year-old's debut on the European stage. Man City is grouped with Porto, Marseille and Olympiakos.

Ethan Horvath, Club Brugge

Horvath has been the backup goalkeeper for the Belgian champion, but with starter and veteran Simon Mignolet testing positive for COVID-19, the door is open for Horvath to start vs. Zenit Saint Petersburg in Tuesday's opener and perhaps again next week vs. Lazio. Horvath already has eight career starts in the Champions League (including the qualifying rounds) dating back to 2015–16. He's made three starts in the group stage, impressively posting clean sheets against Monaco, Atlético Madrid in Dortmund in 2018–19.

Chris Richards, Bayern Munich

Richards, a center back prospect, enjoyed a surprise start at right back for Bayern recently, but a calf injury ruled him out of any subsequent action, and it was always going to be a long shot for him to break through in Hansi Flick's first-choice XI for the Champions League, barring any injuries or suspensions (or for games later in the group stage, when the competitive stakes for Bayern have already been sorted). Nevertheless, the 20-year-old Alabama native and former FC Dallas academy product is right on the cusp, which signifies a level of growth from a season ago.

Konrad de la Fuente, Barcelona

De la Fuente has yet to make his first-team debut for the club, and he was omitted from Barcelona's 23-man squad for the opener vs. Ferencvaros. Playing time in the group stage doesn't appear to be in the offing, but, like in Richards's case, the fact that he's made his way to the brink of the first team at 19 and has caught Koeman's eye to a degree is encouraging.

Alex Mendez, Ajax

Mendez is another one in the "not there just yet" crowd. The 20-year-old is more a part of Jong Ajax than the senior team, yet he's eligible for selection during the group stage shoulder manager Erik ten Hag deem him worthy. He's yet to make his first-team debut.

Jesse Marsch, RB Salzburg

For a second straight year, Marsch will be going up against a pair of heavyweights in the group stage. With long odds comes great opportunity, and last year, Marsch drew high praise from Liverpool's Jürgen Klopp after going toe-to-toe with the reigning champion. Liverpool liked what it saw so much that it poached Takumi Minamino from Salzburg in the winter. Marsch also lost Erling Haaland to Dortmund, yet still took his team to the Austrian summit and survived the qualifying stage to return to the group phase.

Now, all he needs to do is navigate a group with another reigning champion, Bayern Munich, and Atlético Madrid—two clubs with managerial titans. It's a challenge Marsch will surely welcome, and if he's able to survive it and reach the knockout stage, then an 11th American player, Brenden Aaronson, could potentially find himself in the Champions League mix this season, with the Philadelphia Union midfielder due to arrive in Salzburg in January.