The U.S. made soccer history this weekend, as two American men suited up for the final of the UEFA Champions League for the first time ever, a milestone that stateside industry observers hope will kick off a decade of growth in the sport.
In Saturday’s game in Porto, Portugal, young U.S. star Christian Pulisic became the first U.S. Men’s National Team player to take the field in a Champions League final, coming on in the 66th minute to help preserve his Chelsea squad’s 1-0 upset victory over Manchester City. City’s backup goalkeeper, American Zack Steffen, joined Pulisic in the history books by making the gameday squad for the final.
Pulisic barely missed creating an even bigger moment when his shot in the 73rd minute went just wide of the goal, but he didn’t seem bothered by it during Chelsea’s boisterous victory celebration.
A prodigious talent, Pulisic has become the new face of the U.S. Men’s National Team—and has the endorsement resume to prove it. Just 22 years old, Pulisic has partnerships with Gatorade, Chipotle, Panini trading cards, EA Sports’ FIFA video game, Michelob and Hershey’s.
Americans are likely to see much more of him off the field soon, according to Matthew Moore of Centre Circle Consulting, Pulisic’s commercial agent. “He will appear in a big ad campaign for one of his partners this summer—it hasn’t been announced yet so please stay tuned—and there’s potentially a multi-year deal that if it gets over the line, will be by far his biggest ever to date,” Moore said in an email.
The Champions League final, the annual pinnacle of global club soccer, was the fulfillment of a dream for a pair of athletes from the land of the free and the home of the hoagie.
“Who’d have thought, two dudes from Pennsylvania?” Pulisic said in an NBC Sports interview last week, discussing the trail blazed by himself, a son of Hershey (hence the endorsement deal), and the 26-year-old Steffen, who grew up an hour away in Coatesville.
Indeed, two men from anywhere in the union in this game would have been unthinkable just a decade ago. With rare exceptions—such as Jovan Kirovski, who won a Champions League medal as part of German club Borussia Dortmund’s 1997 squad but did not suit up for the title game—top clubs in Europe long turned up their noses at American players. Yanks abroad were almost always forced to hustle just for a chance to toil on teams fighting relegation in big leagues, such as Fulham or Bolton in England, or in lower-profile leagues in Sweden, Scotland and Belgium.
Twenty-five years ago, remembers Richard Motzkin, the EVP and managing executive of global soccer with Wasserman, American soccer had little credibility. “Now, I speak to people in Europe every single day,” said Motzkin, whose agency represents Steffen. “Everything has improved, by multiples.”
Steffen comes from a pioneering line of American keepers who’ve found employment in Europe, including national team legend Tim Howard. But Pulisic, a forward for whom Chelsea paid a $73 million transfer fee to Dortmund in 2018, is the first U.S. field player to break through at the highest levels of club soccer.
“He’s now established himself as so much of a U.S. market leader and a global star,” Moore said, noting his client had the second-best-selling jersey on Soccer.com during the 2020 holiday season, behind Lionel Messi but just ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo. “We know that another online retailer has Christian third behind Messi and Ronaldo for merchandise sales and ahead, by over 15 times, [of] Chelsea’s next most popular player. This is really ground-breaking stuff for an American player. That’s why the brands want to be associated with Christian.”
Though Pulisic far outpaces any other American man in terms of endorsements, he is not alone in finding success on the field. In fact, he heralds the emergence of a class of American field players making important contributions to top clubs across Europe, among them:
—Weston McKennie of Juventus in Italy, a 22-year-old midfielder who won the Coppa Italia playing with Ronaldo.
—Sergino Dest of Barcelona, a 20-year-old fullback who lifted the Spanish Copa del Rey trophy alongside Messi.
—Giovanni Reyna at Dortmund, a midfielder who at 18 helped Pulisic’s old club to the German Cup with Norwegian superstar Erling Haaland.
Those young stalwarts were part of a record 10 Americans who played for Champions League squads this past season, and were among the 14 U.S. players who won league or cup championships with their teams in 2021, another record.
Despite that success, most of these players aren’t well-known to the broad U.S. sports audience. That’s because older, casual American fans follow the sport in the same way they follow the Olympics, tuning in every four years to look in on their countrymen and women in the World Cup. In 2018, of course, there was nothing to see, as the U.S. men failed to qualify for the tournament for the first time since 1990. “It was a setback, for sure,” said Boris Gartner, CEO of LaLiga North America, which markets the Spanish league.
Then, just as Pulisic, McKennie and Dest began settling in at their European clubs, COVID hit, forcing the cancellation of a summer’s worth of U.S. national team games—the time when the American players are available for domestic endorsement work and media opportunities. “Traditionally players overseas are harder to access,” Motzkin said. “And now with the overlay of COVID, it makes it hard for everybody.”
While the men’s national team fizzled, the U.S. women grabbed the spotlight, winning two World Cups and burnishing the brands of players like Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan.
The women’s social media followings tell the tale of their success. But the recent numbers also show something else. The top six U.S. men (average age: 21) are now closing the gap on the top six women (average age: 33).
Both the on-field success and the increasing social-media recognition bode well for a generational sea change. Gartner quoted the decades-old joke about how soccer is America’s sport of the future—and always will be. But he and others think the line may finally need to be retired in the coming years. Part of it is demographics. “The country is younger and more diverse, with a heavy influence from Hispanics,” Gartner said, “and in that demo, you don’t have to sell them on soccer. They’re already sold.”
Knowing this, European leagues are making trans-Atlantic outreach a two-way street, seeking young U.S. players not just for their on-field potential, Gartner said, but “to market the hell out of them.”
LaLiga, for example, just used Barcelona’s Dest and another up-and-coming USMNT player, Yunus Musah of Valencia, in a promotional video announcing its recently signed ESPN partnership.
The rise of this young cohort is coming at an opportune time for U.S. Soccer, which hopes to catapult the game to new heights over the next 10 years. David Wright, U.S. Soccer's chief commercial officer, notes the rapidly expanding viewing options in America, for MLS games, the NWSL, international contests and leagues around the globe.
On top of that is a series of major international events that should increase interest. This summer the women’s national team is scheduled to chase Olympic gold in Tokyo. In the fall, the men’s team will begin World Cup qualifying, which should carry them into the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. In 2023 the women will try to defend their World Cup title in Australia and New Zealand. That’s followed by the decade’s main event in the States, the 2026 men’s World Cup, co-hosted by Canada, Mexico and the U.S., topped off by one more showcase at the 2028 Olympics in L.A. “You’ve got a spotlight on this sport unlike any spotlight that we’ve seen during a defined period of time,” Wright said.
It’s a spotlight that Saturday was turned squarely on Pulisic, who added a Champions League title to his rapidly growing resume.
“It’s about the story-telling,” Gartner said. “For U.S. fans, sports is very hero-centric. Now, with players like Pulisic in the Champions League final for Chelsea and Sergino Dest starting alongside Messi in Barcelona, you’ll start to be able to build those hero stories.”
(This article and headline have been updated to include the result of Saturday's Champions League final.)