CHRISTIAN PULISIC

“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.”

— Christian Pulisic

American soccer hero Christian Pulisic, aptly nicknamed “Captain America,” made history twice on Saturday (May 29).

The Chelsea winger became the first American man ever to play in a UEFA Champions League final, as the Blues beat Manchester City 1–0, capturing the UCL crown at the Estadio do Dragao, in Porto, Portugal.

It marked Chelsea’s second Champions League title in club history; their maiden triumph came in 2011-’12, thanks in large measure to Didier Drogba.

Pulisic is the first American man to play in, and then win a Champions League final.

(Never to be confused with Jovan Kirovski, an American member of the 1996-’97 UCL title-winner Borussia Dortmund — Pulisic’s former club — who did not make the bench that day in Munich, in the German club’s defeat of Juventus).

He (‘Cap’n America’) came on for the last 24 minutes, and nearly scored.

Last month, Pulisic became the first American man to score in the Champions League semi-finals when he found the back of the net at Real Madrid.

And he was one of two Americans on UCL final rosters, along with Manchester City’s backup goalkeeper, Zack Steffen.

For Pulisic and Steffen, it was on to Denver where the USMNT would train for the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League.

The USMNT kicked off the knockout rounds with a 1–0 semifinal victory over Honduras on Thursday (June 3) in what could be best described as a very ‘ugly’ win.

But it was good enough to vault them into Sunday’s final against Mexico, who defeated Costa Rica 0–0; 5–4 PK.

It will be the first time the two sides have shared the pitch in 21 months; the first match of consequence between them in nearly two years; and the only time the top-tier players will go head-to-head before World Cup qualifying begins in the Fall.

(Both are expected to bring squads of a different make-up to the Gold Cup this summer).

Pulisic was asked how tough it is to flip the switch between club and national team responsibilities, and he replied, that for him, not too difficult at all.

“Going from one competition to the next is what I’ve been doing all season,” he replied.

“So it’s constantly having to refocus and get ready for the next game and quick turnarounds, and it’s something that I’m used to.

This is a big one, but there’s not really a switch I need to flip. I was playing at the highest level, and I’m feeling ready and excited…”

Christian Pulisic, a 2016 Hershey (PA) High School graduate, is 22 years old.

He’s knocking on the door, poised to join the fraternity of the greatest American players ever.

Is he Alexi Lalas, Omar Gonzalez, DeMarcus Beasley, Brian McBride or Eric Wynalda?

Not yet.

Claudio Reyna or Jozy Altidore?

Nope.

And he’s not Cobi Jones, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Eddie Pope or Landon Donovan either.

Most certainly.

But he’s comin’; he’s on the way.

As evidenced in the final, when the 20th-ranked US defeated #11 Mexico 3–2, in extra time.

Pulisic scored the winning goal on a PK in the 114th minute, to secure the first-ever CONCACAF Nations League title for the United States.

That was in the 114th minute; there were fireworks still to come.

Although that came near the end — see Ethan Horvath, a native of Highlands Ranch, CO., some thirteen miles away from the venue — for the be-all, end-all.

Horvath expected to watch the game from the bench, as the backup to #1 goalkeeper, Steffen.

(Steffen was forced from the match with a knee injury, midway through the second half).

That was in the 67th minute.

In the 124th minute, Horvath saved Andres Guardado’s penalty kick, guessing right.

No, perfectly right, thanks to intensive film review in the keepers’ room, with goalkeeper coach Aron Hyde.

The American team survived an extended 11 minutes of stoppage time following the second extra period, and beat Mexico in a competitive match for the first time since 2013, following a stretch of three losses and a draw.

Confidence gained, prior to the start of World Cup qualifying in September.

A wild scene.

A confounding and confusing first 90 minutes, for sure.

It took all of 63 seconds for El Tri to score, as Jesus Corona took advantage of a Mark McKenzie mistake in the backfield.

Okay.

In the 27th minute, Pulisic spun a lovely corner kick to Weston McKennie, who headed the ball off the post.

The rebound fell fortuitously, right at the feet of Gio Reyna (Claudio’s son).

1–1.

Good things happen when you play really hard.

Simple, right?

Never mind.

The Mexico side is a veteran side.

The U.S. is young.

But they responded.

They USMNT figured out how to come back from a deficit…twice.

And win.

After 30 minutes of overtime and extra time.

But a lot of things went on.

Mexico regained the lead with ten minutes left in regulation, when 78th minute substitute, Diego Lainez, snuck a ball inside the right post.

The USA equalized 2 ½ minutes later on McKennie’s header conversion of a Reyna corner kick.

Horvath made a huge save in the final moments of regulation off the foot of Hirving Lozano, and voila, OT.

Big.

Mexico had the better of the play during the first overtime period, but then it became about Pulisic.

Sandwiched hard by two Mexican defenders in the right side of the penalty area, he went down in a heap.

No foul was called initially, but a VAR review resulted in a penalty kick for him, which he struck with world-class skill, precision and composure, firing the ball into the upper right corner.

Mexico manager Gerardo Martino was red-carded when he draped his arms over the ref’s shoulders during the review.

Can’t touch ’em.

Bottles littered the field during the ensuing U.S. celebration.

Reyna was hit in the head and had to be helped from the pitch.

And during the final moments of the second half, before the match went into extra time, it was briefly paused, to address fans chanting anti-gay slurs.

For every gut punch by Mexico, the youthful hosts had an answer.

And it was Pulisic, the U.S. captain for the game, lifting the silver trophy at midfield of Empower Field at Mile High.

“It’s just a perfect way to end the year. I’m so proud of this group. We needed everyone today and it was a phenomenal performance.”

Coming of age.

It was an improbable capstone to an evening of nutty twists and turns, to be recalled fondly and dissected in exquisite detail, for years.

Pulisic.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in June 2021.]

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