Sports

Captain America Atop of Europe

Soccer players celebrating in soccer player fashion.
Christian Pulisic of Chelsea celebrates with the Champions League Trophy alongside teammates Antonio Rudiger, Kai Havertz and Tammy Abraham following their team’s victory during the UEFA Champions League Final on May 29, 2021 in Porto, Portugal. David Ramos/Getty Images

A season full of breakthroughs for young American male players in Europe achieved a crowning moment on Saturday when Christian Pulisic won club soccer’s top prize after his Chelsea side defeated fellow English giants Manchester City 1-0 in the Champions League final. Pulisic’s attacking prowess ended up not being needed for Chelsea, who did more than enough on the defensive end of the pitch to frustrate Manchester City’s own bevy of offensive talent. In becoming, though, just the second American man—and the first representing the U.S. men’s national team—to play in a Champions League final, Pulisic once again showed the world that there’s an American who belongs at the top of the European game.

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It was the third loss in three tries for Manchester City against Chelsea as managed by Thomas Tuchel. The German took over Chelsea on January 26, and, as he said afterwards, has proven to be “the stone in the shoe” for City’s esteemed manager Pep Guardiola and the recently-crowned Premier League champions.

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Guardiola certainly wasn’t passive in the wake of those defeats. He changed his team from the setup it had used all season, sending out a lineup that looked like the final boss in a video game: chock full of terrifying firepower yet with a very obvious flashing weak point. Guardiola tasked İlkay Gündoğan— the team’s leading scorer this season—with playing alone at the back of City’s midfield. Since the moment City clicked into the dominant force in the Premier League at the end of 2020, either Rodri or Fernandinho has started in that position, with Gündoğan retreating backwards to help defensively and bursting late into the opposing box to threaten the goal. Now he was meant to be playing the lone covering role while Guardiola crammed extra attackers like Raheem Sterling and Phil Foden onto the field. It’s as if someone told Spanish manager “Come back with your shield—or on it,” and he decided the best way to do that would be to leave the shield tucked behind some unseen parapet and go into battle with a sword in each hand and a third between his teeth.

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But Chelsea didn’t panic, and so had little trouble dealing with City’s slow and predictable patterns, which were more Glass Joe than Mike Tyson. City had difficulties getting the ball forward on its right side the entire game, rendering dangerous attackers Bernardo Silva and Riyad Mahrez all but superfluous. Instead, it funneled most of its attacks down the left toward Chelsea’s Reece James, César Azpilicueta, and, most crucially, N’Golo Kanté, who after losing more than a year of his career playing for a manager in Frank Lampard who never knew what to do with him, has shown unequivocally that he’s still one of the world’s best players.

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City’s insistence on working this side of the field meant that Kanté was close enough to disrupt both its weak and its strong links. He could pick on City’s left back, Oleksandr Zinchenko, who spent much of the game playing as an auxiliary central midfielder and who found his underhit passes or overcooked touches pounced on by Kanté again and again. Then he’d still be close enough to disrupt City star Kevin De Bruyne as he drifted to that side to find the ball. The stock line on Kante is that having him is like having an extra player on the pitch. On Saturday it was like having two extra. He was so good even the other team couldn’t hide its appreciation.

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The breakthrough for Chelsea came in the 42nd minute. Mason Mount dropped off the front line to find space in the left side of the midfield and combine with Ben Chilwell, an area that City might have had better covered with Rodri on the pitch. Timo Werner, on a typically darting run, dragged Rúben Dias towards that sideline and away from the penalty box. John Stones went too far and not far enough to cover Mount, leaving him plenty of time to hit a pass into a massive window as Kai Havertz galloped away from Zinchenko and dipped around City goalkeeper Ederson.

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The goal, and City’s ineffectiveness at responding to it, meant that Pulisic’s time on the pitch as a late “super-sub” was hamstrung by the game state. With a 1–0 lead, Chelsea sent support forward at a trudge in the rare moments when it got the ball and kept possession in Manchester City’s half, looking always for the foul that would eat up minutes on the clock rather than the goal. Pulisic ended up with the best Chelsea chance of the second half, combining with Havertz to go through on goal but getting knocked just far enough off his line by Dias to send his shot wide of Ederson’s onrushing shoulder and the goal.

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It was a difficult but doable chance, and no doubt the prospect of scoring in a Champions League final makes the miss especially bitter. But sharp finishing has never been the strong suit of Chelsea’s strikers this year, least of all earlier in this game, when Werner whiffed a clear chance and let it hit his plant foot. The second goal would prove unnecessary, though. City’s attack stalled for the most part in the 55th minute when Chelsea defender Antonio Rüdiger barreled shoulder-first into De Bruyne’s face, knocking the Belgian playmaker out of the game.

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Pulisic joined nine American women in playing in the Champions League final, and one American man: Neven Subotic, who lived in the U.S. as a child and played for U.S. youth teams before opting to represent Serbia as an international. Subotic started for Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 final, losing to Bayern Munich. American Jovan Kirovski won the Champions League with Dortmund in 1997, but appeared only in a pair of group stage games as a substitute, not the final. Pulisic is the figure that American fans will actually remember.

The former Dortmund man has been open about his frustrations coming off the bench for Chelsea, but Pulisic’s role as the first man up is a far cry from where he started under Tuchel. In the German manager’s first Champions League game in charge back in February, Pulisic was restricted to a four-minute cameo. A few weeks after that he played just 14 minutes. He started just one of Tuchel’s first 11 Premier League games in charge.

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Since then he has started all but one league game, and either started or come off the bench with plenty of time left to affect the outcome in Chelsea’s runs to both the Champions League and FA Cup finals. He, rights holder CBS, and a good chunk of America may wish he had gotten the opportunity to start the Champions League final, but his standing has improved to the point where there was little doubt he’d see the field before the end of the match.

It’s a far cry from two months ago, when there were rumors floating about where he would land after Chelsea discarded him. For now, there’s no place better for him to be than sitting atop the pinnacle of the European game.

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