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The Hurdles En Route to History for Two Americans in the Champions League Final

Either Christian Pulisic or Zack Steffen will become the second American male to win the Champions League title, but they haven't had it easy at their elite clubs.

History is usually observed in hindsight, so it’s not always obvious in the moment that it’s being made. We’re distracted by the demands of the occasion and the day-to-day. We’re focused on the now. Discrete incidents and achievements accumulate and become history, but during the process, when, for example, the games pile up and bleed into each other and there’s almost no time to reflect or reminisce because there’s another match in three days, the big picture can be impossible to contemplate.

Christian Pulisic and/or Zack Steffen will make history on Saturday. One of them will win the UEFA Champions League, becoming just the second U.S. player to do so. If either appears in the all-English final between Pulisic’s Chelsea and Steffen’s Manchester City, he will become the first American man to compete on the club game’s most prestigious stage. At the conclusion of a groundbreaking European season during which nine U.S. national team players and several other Americans won league and/or cup titles, one will cap it off with the most meaningful crown of all.

When Jovan Kirovski won the Champions League as a 20-year-old reserve at Borussia Dortmund in 1997, he was an outlier. It was a coincidence. But it feels different now. If the recent trajectory of Americans abroad continues, either Pulisic or Steffen will be a harbinger. Yet neither the forward nor the goalkeeper, both from Pennsylvania, is ready to wrap his arms or mind around that just yet. It’s been a long grind of a campaign, and there’s a game in Porto to prepare for and win. History is for later.

USA's Christian Pulisic and Zack Steffen have reached the Champions League final

“I think we’re not going to fully understand and grasp the situation until maybe the summer or next season, or in a couple seasons, because we’re in it and that’s our goal, to go to these finals and win these finals and lift these trophies,” Steffen told "But from the outside looking in, I can imagine it’s just insane.”

Asked about this final’s significance to the growth of American soccer, Pulisic told NBC that he hadn’t really thought about it.

“It’s more of like a personal, like a team goal,” he said. “I want to go out and win that thing before I think of anything else, to be honest. I mean, it’s incredible. And also, Zack on the other team. Who would’ve thought, two dudes from Pennsylvania? I can see how that’s a massive thing and it makes me very proud. But I’m focused on this game and I want to win this game.”

That focus and determination has helped each of them navigate seasons that were anything but accommodating. In addition to the protocols, empty stadiums and compressed schedules necessitated by the pandemic, both Pulisic and Steffen faced their share of personal challenges. American soccer’s progress in Europe is far from linear, and there’s a whole new set of hurdles awaiting those who reach the biggest clubs. For Steffen, 26, it was accepting a role as backup to Ederson and still finding ways to improve, grow and be at his best for the national team while playing only occasionally for City. For Pulisic, 22, it was staying healthy, ready and confident while Chelsea spent hundreds of millions of pounds during a summer spree and then fired its manager midseason.

”I've learned a lot. I’ve come very far," Pulisic told CBS. "There have been some real ups, also some times where I had some really difficult moments. I'm happy with my form now. I'm happy with the way I'm feeling. I'm confident.”

Said Steffen, “It’s either you’re going to grow, or you’re going to get kicked out real soon.”

The magnitude of their resilience and achievement certainly isn’t lost on U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, who spent 15 years toiling in the Netherlands, England and Germany before finishing his playing career with the LA Galaxy. He’s well aware of how high the mountain is, and how historically high Pulisic and Steffen have climbed.

“It’s amazing. I can’t say enough about it, how proud we are of our players,” Berhalter said this week from Switzerland, where the USA is preparing for Sunday’s friendly against the hosts before traveling to Denver for the Concacaf Nations League final four (Steffen and Pulisic will join the team in Colorado).

Steffen will play on Saturday only if something happens to Ederson, but he’ll still be considered a Champions League winner if City triumphs, and he’ll have played a part in the campaign thanks to a 3-0 shutout of Olympique Marseille in December. Steffen’s contribution to the club’s fifth Premier League crown in 10 years was similar. But after returning from his 2019-20 loan to Fortuna Düsseldorf and a knee injury that knocked him out last spring, the cup competitions were all his. He backstopped City to the FA Cup semis (where it lost to Chelsea, of all teams) and the 2021 EFL Cup title. His diving, fingertip save on a second-half curler from Giovani Lo Celso preserved City’s 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in last month’s EFL Cup final.

Overall, Steffen has played in just 12 games in 2020-21. That’s not ideal for a goalkeeper entering his prime. But the environment, coaching and competition in Manchester has helped him improve, he claimed midway through the season.

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USA's Zack Steffen and Christian Pulisic reached the Champions League final

“The talent they have at that club, just to be in training with those guys every day, is making me better,” Steffen said. “It’s pushing me in ways that I definitely wasn’t pushed in the past at different levels of my career. … Just in every aspect it’s quicker. It’s faster. It’s more intense. It’s sharper. You’ve really got to be focused and dialed in and kind of on your game every day, every training. You can’t take days off.”

This week, Berhalter praised Steffen’s willingness to put himself in that situation, at that level, and compete.

“When I think about Zack, it’s bravery. It’s bravery to say ‘I’m going to stay here even though my playing time might be limited. But I’m going to be learning and I’m going to be part of a project thats massive,’” the manager said. “He had to make that decision on his own, and it's not an easy decision to make. When I look back on this year, I would say that he’s definitely improved. He’s definitely progressed, and that’s all you want from a player, so a very successful year.”

Down in London, Pulisic hasn’t played as often as he’d like, either. Concerns about his potential fragility were raised in the fall as he missed multiple matches with muscle injuries. Then, as he started to heal up and get stronger, Chelsea reached a crossroads and replaced Frank Lampard with Thomas Tuchel, Pulisic’s former manager at Borussia Dortmund. Their familiarity didn’t seem to help the player, however, as Pulisic often was used as a substitute while Tuchel got to know the squad.

Things started to look up in early April, when Pulisic scored in consecutive Premier League games, and they peaked—so far—with his outstanding performance in the Champions League semifinals against Real Madrid. Pulisic scored in the 1-1 draw in Madrid, then had an assist in the 2-0 clincher back at Stamford Bridge. His postgame comments about having to prove himself “over and over again” went viral.

Pulisic may not start Saturday’s final. But Chelsea probably isn’t there without him.

“It’s been a crazy couple years for sure,” Pulisic told NBC. “I think I’m proud of how far I’ve come, not just as a player but as a person as well. People don’t see that side. It’s been a big change for me. … The Premier League has definitely made me a lot stronger, physically especially and also mentally with all the games and the constant pressure game after game.”

USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter and Christian Pulisic

Berhalter said, “When I think about [Pulisic], it’s just relentlessness. He’s a guy who doesn’t give up. and we had a lot of conversations and just kept encouraging him, saying, ‘You have the quality. Keep going.’ He’s a guy who showed he can do his talking on the field and that’s what we’re most proud of—the way he got back onto the field, the way he won a starting position and then the way he just kept persevering and performing was really great.”

After one of them lifts the trophy in Porto, the work still won’t be finished. There’s the Nations League, then a summer break, then it quickly begins again. Can Steffen challenge Ederson for more Premier League minutes? Can personal and positional growth continue, even during a second season as a substitute? Can Pulisic escape Tuchel’s revolving door and cement a spot as a leading Premier League attacker, thus picking up the Chelsea mantle left by Eden Hazard? The hurdles and expectations will get higher, and either Steffen or Pulisic will have a gold Champions League medal he’ll probably forget about on occasion.

That’s the nature of making history. Berhalter, however, is in charge of assembling the bigger picture. So he’s well aware of, and moved by, what Saturday’s game represents.

“When you think about having two Americans now playing in the Champions League final, I get goosebumps thinking about it,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling, and we’re going to be watching them and rooting them on and proud of both of them.”

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