Where have all the Americans gone?! USMNT's love affair with the Champions League in a lull - but it's not over yet
In recent years, the Champions League was becoming a source of pride for the U.S. men's national team. Never before had we seen so many Americans playing at such a high level. There were record numbers of participants and deeper runs than ever before.
Perhaps most importantly, there was even a Champions League winner, with Christian Pulisic's role in Chelsea winning the title in 2021 ensuring that an American star had climbed to the highest level the club game has to offer.
The USMNT's biggest stars were making an impact on European soccer's biggest stage, showing signs that a young and hungry national side was ready to take things 10 steps further than their predecessors.
But a quick glance around this season's Champions League knockout stages quickly reveals that much has changed. At least for now, Europe's premier club competition isn't home to the USMNT's top stars.
There are a few, of course, that could conceivably make an impact. Gio Reyna has been shining for Borussia Dortmund and could do so again against Chelsea, who would have Pulisic available if not for injury.
Paxten Aaronson could, theoretically, make his debut for Eintracht Frankfurt, although that's not too likely on such a big stage. And, in another world, Sergino Dest could be starting for AC Milan, but the fullback was left out of the Italian giant's Champions League squad for the latter rounds.
That's it - that's the list. It's very likely that Reyna will be the only American to see the field in the last 16, and that's not even a guarantee given that he's been used primarily as a substitute by Dortmund in recent weeks.
So how did we get here? Where did all of the Americans go and what will it take to get them back?
Much of the blame ( if you can call it that) can be placed at Leeds United's door, who signed three American players from Champions League regulars over the past nine months.
Tyler Adams, who memorably scored to send RB Leipzig to the semi-finals in 2020, moved to Elland Road this summer alongside Brenden Aaronson, a star at Austrian powerhouse Red Bull Salzburg in last season's knockout stages. And then, in January, came Weston McKennie from Juventus, who, despite their recent difficulties on and off the field, are always among the contenders to make a run in Europe.
Those three are among the USMNT's top players and are expected to be playing at the highest level. Instead, they find themselves in a battle to keep Leeds afloat in the Premier League. Dropping into the Championship would be some step down from where they were less than a year ago.
They aren't the only ones to have left big clubs for teams outside of the Champions League, though. Zack Steffen left Manchester City for a loan at Middlesbrough to secure more playing time ahead of a World Cup call-up that never came. Chris Richards, meanwhile, wasn't going to break through at Bayern Munich, so he moved to Crystal Palace, where injuries have, unfortunately, taken their toll.
And then there are the Americans that could be in this competition but aren't. Malik Tillman, James Sands and Rangers were blasted out of the group stage. Jordan Pefok and Union Berlin are in the Europa League, meanwhile, but could be at the top table in 2023-24 if they can keep up their miraculous Bundesliga campaign.
Matt Turner and Arsenal seemingly have a spot in the Champions League locked up for next season, as does Cameron Carter-Vickers with Celtic. Tim Weah and Lille could also be back if they can go on a run in Ligue 1.
Knowing that, there isn't too much reason for concern, even with dwindling numbers this season.
Several key USMNT stars traded Champions League status for playing time and, by and large, that choice is the right one. Playing week-in, week-out in a top league is vital, even if that means giving up the Champions League dream for a bit.
So, with that in mind, Adams, McKennie and Aaronson's decision to join Leeds is just fine, although we'll check back on their Premier League status in a few months' time. Pulisic may leave Chelsea, but there's a good chance he'll end up at another top-tier European side.
Dest's future may be uncertain, but there will be teams willing to take on a shot on a good attacking full-back with plenty of potential. Yunus Musah's days at Valencia, meanwhile, may be numbered as Champions League clubs prepare to swoop for the midfielder, while Antonee Robinson could also be a prime candidate for a big move, having been linked with Manchester City in January.
And then there are the young stars to keep an eye on. There's Gaga Slonina at Chelsea already and Paxten Aaronson in Frankfurt. Jonathan Gomez could soon break out at Real Sociedad, who are currently on pace for a Champions League spot, while the next generation of American stars could soon move to European clubs.
In time, that next generation will face the same choices made by their predecessors. Some will head to clubs in leagues like the Netherlands, Austria or Belgium in pursuit of gametime, exposure and Champions League minutes. Others will work their way up the ladder in top leagues. And then there may be the select few like Reyna and Pulisic who leap straight to the front of the line by joining one of the world's elite to start their careers.
The numbers are down and the situation has changed, sure, but there's still reason for optimism. The Champions League remains the pinnacle of this sport and more Americans every year are inching closer to it.
The USMNT's Champions League dreams likely won't come true in 2023, but the love affair is far from being over.
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