An Early Look at U.S. Potential for Next Season's Champions League

The 2020–21 campaign has been a record-setting season for U.S. players on Europe's top stage, and the movement is poised to grow even more next season.
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By just about any measure, 2020–21 been a norm-shattering season for U.S. players on the UEFA Champions League stage. The numbers do the talking.

A record 10 Americans were named to Champions League rosters for the group stage this season, a record nine of which appeared in group matches (and a record five of which appeared on the same day in the competition). A record seven advanced to the knockout stage, and already a record-tying three have appeared, with just half of the last-16 first legs in the books. Another standard could be set as soon as Tuesday, if Christian Pulisic plays for Chelsea vs. Atletico Madrid.

The point isn't for this season to be a one-off, though. It's for it to become the norm to have so many players—especially young players in the formative years of their careers—appearing in Europe's premier competition. As the contingent of Americans playing not just overseas but doing so at some of the world's elite clubs, continues to grow, the number of U.S. players on the Champions League stage should, in theory, continue to grow as well.

So what might the Champions League contingent look like next season? Naturally the current domestic seasons around the continent need to end before that's fully known, and the transfer market will dictate plenty as well. But given how the current tables around Europe's leagues are looking and based on who is currently situated where, it's possible to take a rough and educated glimpse into the future. In short, while 2020–21 was a record-breaking season from a U.S. standpoint, 2021–22 is poised to build on that.

Sergiño Dest, Tim Weah and John Brooks could all be in next season's Champions League.

Sergiño Dest, Tim Weah and John Brooks could all be in next season's Champions League.

Set to return

Sergiño Dest, Konrad de la Fuente (Barcelona)

Barcelona's chaos and crises aside, the club is still looking good for a top-four finish in La Liga, which would cement a return to the Champions League—a place that has long been taken for granted at Camp Nou. A potential last-16 exit and looming financial ruin don't bode well for the short-term health of the club, but Dest has shown in spurts that he has the chops to perform at that level, while Konrad remains a peripheral figure around the first team.

Zack Steffen (Manchester City)

Steffen remains the backup to Ederson at Manchester City, but he's performed well when called upon and has appeared in every competition for Man City this season, including the group stage finale of the Champions League. Provided he stays at the Etihad, he figures to be in a similar situation next season.

Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig)

Adams hasn't been in position to replicate his Champions League quarterfinal heroics from a season ago, and Leipzig is still lacking something after Timo Werner's departure to Chelsea, but RBL is just two points out of the Bundesliga lead and is poised for another Champions League appearance next season regardless of whether it ends Bayern's domestic dominance. As for this season it must overturn a 2–0 deficit to Liverpool, or else its run will end in the last 16.

Weston McKennie (Juventus)

Juve is teetering on the edge of the top four in Serie A, which isn't something it's had to consider for a decade. You'd expect Juventus to figure it out—if not catching the Milan powers at the top of the table, then at least securing a top-four finish. Entering Monday's match vs. Crotone in sixth, Juve has two games in hand on the teams it's chasing and would be just five points off the top if it takes the maximum points from that pair. McKennie is still technically on loan with Juventus from Schalke, but it is expected that the Bianconeri will make his move permanent, especially after the impressive first campaign he's had in Turin.

Chris Richards (Bayern Munich)

Richards is on loan at Hoffenheim for the rest of this season and participating in the Europa League knockout stage, but it is expected that he'll return to Bayern for next season. The summer arrival of Leipzig centerback Dayot Upamecano doesn't do much to alleviate the roster competition at Bayern, but Richards has shown versatility to be able to perform on the outside if necessary.

Alex Mendez (Ajax)

Mendez, 20, cracked Ajax's European roster but wasn't realistically close to appearing and has spent most of the season out injured. With Ajax leading the Eredivisie and in position to return to the Champions League stage, perhaps he can take that leap to the first team next season.

Chelsea star Christian Pulisic

Status uncertain

Christian Pulisic (Chelsea)

Chelsea sits fifth in a congested Premier League table, and nothing is a given for the Blues, even after they spent over $300 million during the thick of the pandemic to boost their squad. Pulisic's role, specifically, has been made even more cloudy by recent comments made by manager Thomas Tuchel, who on one hand said "clearly yes" he wants Pulisic to stay long-term at the club, but then on the other says nothing is decided about the summer (which, from a pragmatic standpoint, is sensible). Injuries, and the fear of suffering more of them, have recently put Pulisic in a "risk management" situation with the club.

Ethan Horvath (Club Brugge)

Horvath's contract expires at the end of this season, so perhaps the 25-year-old goalkeeper doesn't return with the Belgian league leader, where he's a backup to veteran Simon Mignolet. If he does he'd likely find himself in a similar position for a club in line to win another league title.

Gio Reyna (Dortmund)

Dortmund sits in sixth in the Bundesliga and has some work to do to secure a top-four finish, even after its rousing Revierderby victory over the weekend. BVB is six points out of the top four, and a failure to crack it before manager Marco Rose takes charge in the summer could result in some decisions regarding the club's young and talented personnel. Reyna, though, signed a contract through 2025 in November.

Potentially in line to join

Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg)

The 20-year-old Aaronson helped Salzburg to a win over second-place Rapid Vienna on Sunday, which opened up a six-point lead at the top of the Austrian Bundesliga. Another league title (Salzburg has won the last seven) would put the club in the final qualifying round for the Champions League. 

Whether manager Jesse Marsch would be part of another European run with the club remains to be seen. He's been linked to the Borussia Monchengladbach opening now that Rose is Dortmund-bound—and if the perpetually courted Julian Nagelsmann were to bolt Leipzig for another gig, Marsch, a former assistant there, would presumably be among the contenders to take charge.

Tim Weah (Lille)

Lille continues to hold off perennial Ligue 1 winner PSG, but even a top-two finish would suffice in securing a ticket directly to the Champions League group stage, while third place would provide consolation in the form of a qualifying-round berth. Regardless it's all looking promising for the 21-year-old Weah, who lost nearly all of last season to injury but has bounced back with five goals in all competitions this season.

John Brooks (Wolfsburg)

Brooks, 28, who has been a constant in the back for Wolfsburg (which is tied for the fewest losses in the Bundesliga with Eintracht Frankfurt), has conceded the second-fewest goals in the league and is seeking its first Champions League berth since 2015–16. The centerback has never played in the Champions League in his career, but that'll change if his club can hold off the likes of Bayer Leverkusen and Dortmund. Brooks is under contract through the end of the 2021–22 season.

Timmy Chandler (Eintracht Frankfurt)

Like Brooks, Chandler's club is making a surprising run near the top of the Bundesliga, tied on points with Wolfsburg and in fourth on goal differential. Unlike Brooks, the 30-year-old Chandler isn't on the U.S. national team radar anymore—his last cap was in Jürgen Klinsmann's last match as manager, over four years ago—and he's also not a vital part of his club's success, playing just 61 league minutes this season.

Bryan Reynolds (Roma)

Reynolds, 19, has yet to make his Roma debut after securing his transfer from FC Dallas, and it may take him time to get up to speed once some reported visa-related issues are sorted. 

“We can’t forget that he hasn’t played in two months; he needs to train individually to get fit. However, we’re working with him so that he can start training with the squad as soon as possible,” manager Paulo Fonseca said this past week.

Nevertheless he's joining a squad that's currently third in Serie A—though not comfortably in the clear by any stretch, not with Atalanta, Lazio, Juventus and Napoli all charging hard in what's essentially a five-team race for two places. If Roma can outlast the competition, Reynolds would go right into the Champions League spotlight.

DeAndre Yedlin (Galatasaray)

Yedlin has seemingly adapted well to his new surroundings at Galatasaray, which currently sits atop the Turkish Super Lig. A league title would not put the club directly into the knockout stage, with Turkey's champion going into the final playoff round, but it's safe to say that Yedlin's club outlook is considerably brighter now than it was toiling on the fringes of Newcastle's squad that's trying to fight off relegation. 

With more passes like this—made Saturday in his first start for the club—the 27-year-old's place in Fatih Terim's lineup could become more permanent.

Tyler Boyd (Besiktas)

Boyd's Besiktas future is murky after he was a casualty of a foreigner-limit roster rule that led to him effectively being frozen out from playing from October to February. He's currently on loan with mid-table Sivasspor, also in Turkey's top flight, but under contract with Besiktas until the 2022–23 season ends. Should he return, he would go back to a club that's currently three points behind Galatasaray for Turkey's title and in second place—a finish that would require the club to win three playoff rounds to reach the Champions League group stage. In short there's plenty that needs to happen for Boyd, 26, to play minutes in the Champions League properly next season, but it's within reach.

Richy Ledezma (PSV)

Ledezma is out for the rest of the season recovering from a torn ACL suffered in December, and it's unclear when he'll be able to return to action. When he does, though, he could be joining a Champions League side. PSV is in contention with Ajax for the Eredivisie title (and the league's one-group stage berth) and is currently in second, which would be good for a place in the qualifying round.