There are different ways to measure the progress made by American soccer over recent years, but one has captured the imagination of the soccer-loving masses in recent months: U.S. players in the UEFA Champions League. The figure hit double digits for the first time last year and is only growing.
It’s not a novel concept to use the Champions League as a measuring stick. Former U.S. national team head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was insistent about his desire to see more Americans playing in the club tournament recognized as the best in the world. Years later, those numbers are slowly growing and catching the eye, as are the accomplishments of the American players involved in the competition. And that’s without mentioning the exploits of the first American-born manager in the Champions League group stage, Jesse Marsch.
Last season, Christian Pulisic made history as the first U.S. national team player to see the field and win a UEFA Champions League final. Pulisic and Chelsea beat a Manchester City team that had an American, Zack Steffen, as its backup goalkeeper. Merely reaching the semifinals of the competition was a historic moment — the first time that a pair of U.S. players made a semifinal stage. A year earlier, Tyler Adams became the first American to score in a quarterfinal match for RB Leipzig.
Pulisic, Steffen and Adams are three of a record 12 Americans who will be eligible to play in the 2021-22 UEFA Champions League campaign. That’s two more than last year’s record of 10 U.S. internationals. What might be most impressive is that nine of the players are 22 or younger and a handful ply their trade for high-profile clubs. It’s hard enough to break into a European side as an accomplished professional, let alone an up-and-coming talent. It’s a sign that the talent is elite. Brenden Aaronson, 20, became the latest newcomer to prove it with two goals in the Champions League playoff series to help his RB Salzburg team reach the group stage.
There could yet be changes to the list — reports suggest Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie could be headed to Tottenham in the Premier League and it’s unclear whether Taylor Booth has done enough to get a Champions League squad call-up at Bayern this season — but here are the 12 Americans who project to be involved in this season’s Champions League and their clubs’ prospects in the competition after the group-stage draw:
American players in UEFA Champions League
The contenders: Pulisic, Richards, Steffen
Their clubs will have challenging matches in the group stage — Chelsea vs. Juventus, Bayern vs. Barcelona and Manchester City vs. Paris Saint-Germain — but their club rosters are so star-studded that they should still have what it takes to advance as one of the top two in their respective groups.
Frankly, for defending champion Chelsea and big-spending Manchester City, anything short of the final would be considered a failure. Bayern don’t spend on their levels, but the 2020 champions still have title aspirations. Chris Richards, a Bayern defender with a grand total of 128 Champions League minutes under his belt, will be hoping for more of a chance to make an impact.
Pulisic, on the other hand, is the USMNT’s all-time leader in Champions League appearances; he’s getting set to enter his sixth Champions League tournament at 22. He also has more goals and assists in the competition than any other American player in history.
The challengers: Adams, Dest, McKennie, Reyna
These clubs are title contenders in their domestic leagues, but they’re a notch below the favorites for the top continental title. Even if the experts are counting them out when it comes to winning the trophy, their clubs have the game-breaking talent to knock out a favorite or two if they can build momentum through the tournament (especially Sergino Dest’s Barcelona and Weston McKennie’s Juventus).
Except for Adams and RB Leipzig, who have to contend with Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City in Group A, the others will be expected to get out of the group stage at the very minimum.
The knockout hopefuls: Brooks, Weah
Only one of these players will likely make it out of a Group G that features Lille, Sevilla, RB Salzburg and VfL Wolfsburg. Spanish side Sevilla reloaded with talent in the offseason and will be considered the favorites. They’ve done the opposite of French title-winners LOSC Lille, who have been decimated by departures during the summer.
For that reason the edge is probably with John Brooks and his Bundesliga side VfL Wolfsburg to grind out enough results against Tim Weah’s Lille and RB Salzburg to advance to the knockout stage. But watch out for Aaronson and high-pressing RB Salzburg, who have the type of uptempo playing style that could cause an upset or two. They could wreak havoc on the balance of power in the group and the final standings finish.
The long shots: Aaronson, Otasowie, Pefok
Making it out of the group stage would be considered a success for these three teams. Frankly, finishing third, which is rewarded with the consolation prize of a knockout-round match in the UEFA Europa League, would also be an accomplishment.
Aaronson and RB Salzburg have their hands full in Group G, but that’s nothing compared to what Club Brugge and new arrival Owen Otasowie have to contend with in Group A: Manchester City, PSG and RB Leipzig.
For BSC Young Boys and forward Jordan Pefok Siebatcheu, third place will be a challenge with leading Italian (Atalanta), English (Manchester United) and Spanish clubs (Villarreal) in their group. Young Boys will be the underdog in every match in their group.
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