Hershey native Christian Pulisic became the first U.S. men’s national team player to play in and win world club soccer’s biggest prize when Chelsea beat Manchester City, 1-0, in Saturday’s UEFA men’s Champions League final in Porto, Portugal.
Pulisic entered the game as a substitute in the 66th minute, becoming the second American to ever play in a men’s Champions League final. The only other one was Neven Subotic, a former U.S. youth national team player who escaped the Bosnian War with his parents and spent part of his childhood in Salt Lake City. He played for Borussia Dortmund in 2013 against Bayern Munich. But he had changed his national team allegiance to Serbia years earlier, and played for that country at the 2010 World Cup.
Pulisic, 22, is also the second American man to earn a European Cup winner’s medal. The first was Jovan Kirovski in 1997, when he was on Dortmund’s bench against Juventus.
As Chelsea’s players took their turns celebrating with the trophy, Pulisic spent his moment with his parents, Mark and Kelley. He wore a U.S. men’s national team hoodie that he had also carried onto the trophy presentation stage, draped over his shoulders.
“I can’t explain it, it’s still such a shock,” Pulisic told CBS while taking a break from the celebrations. “I’m just so proud to be here … It’s been a difficult road for me and I couldn’t imagine winning the Champions League ever in my life, and now I’m here. It’s just crazy.”
Chelsea’s goal came from Kai Havertz in the 42nd minute. Havertz ran onto Mason Mount’s through-ball and skipped by City goalkeeper Ederson Moraes before slotting the ball into an empty net.
Pulisic had a chance to score in the 73rd minute at the end of a pretty give-and-go-with Havertz. But Ederson came off his line and forced Pulisic to loft a chip shot that sailed wide left. The worldwide TV broadcast caught Pulisic slamming the turf in frustration.
“I knew I was going to have to put in the hard work defensively,” Pulisic said. “I wish I put away the chance I had; I didn’t quite get under it like I wanted. But in the end, this team, we were always going to win this game, and I’m just so proud of them.”
The title is Chelsea’s second Champions League triumph, making it the 13th club to win the trophy multiple times. Its first was in 2012.
In much of the rest of the world, the focus will be on Chelsea’s genius central midfielder N’Golo Kanté, or Havertz, or the fleet of young English players led by Mount, Ben Chillwell, and Reece James. Manager Thomas Tuchel will also get praise — especially from Pulisic, whose pro career began under Tuchel’s tutelage at Dortmund in 2016.
But in the United States, the spotlight will shine overwhelmingly on one person.
A wide swath of the American soccer community has coveted a global male star for decades, the kind who can create the perception that this country has truly arrived on the global men’s soccer stage. (The U.S. women’s team has long since arrived, as its players and fans rightly remind anyone who forgets them.)
Landon Donovan, Claudio Reyna, Tim Howard, and Alexi Lalas never cleared that bar. Pulisic has been hyped to do it ever since he left PA Classics, his youth club in Manheim (Pa.) Township, for Dortmund’s youth setup as a 16-year-old in 2015. And there were hints of his potential well before then, including when he briefly played for a Union-branded youth team in 2012.
Two years ago, Pulisic took a step toward that long-craved breakthrough when Chelsea bought him for a $73 million transfer fee, by far the largest ever for an American player. On Saturday, Chelsea helped him take his biggest step yet.
“just a kid from hershey PA,” Pulisic wrote on Instagram, knowing full well he isn’t that anymore.