In an all-English final, the UEFA Champions League trophy will go to London, not Manchester; to the men in royal blue, not sky blue; and to the club employing a young attacker from Hershey, Pa., who, with his second-half appearance, made U.S. soccer history.
On a night of high drama in a seaside Portuguese city, Kai Havertz, a 21-year-old German forward, scored late in the first half Saturday as Chelsea upset Manchester City, 1-0, to win its second European championship and deny its Premier League rivals their first.
The Porto setting also provided a stage for Christian Pulisic, who became the first U.S. men’s national team player to appear in club soccer’s biggest game. Manchester City goalkeeper Zack Steffen, Pulisic’s U.S. teammate, did not play.
Pulisic, 22, entered in the 66th minute and almost scored moments later.
“I’m just so proud to be here,” Pulisic said after being joined on the field by his parents, Mark and Kelley, former soccer players at George Mason University, to pose with the trophy. “I couldn’t imagine winning the Champions League ever in my life, and now I’m here.”
Chelsea relived the glory of winning the 2012 title and stymied a Manchester City team in the final for the first time after a 10-year ascent. Although Manchester City had claimed the Premier League crown this month, Chelsea drew confidence from winning the previous two meetings.
Thomas Tuchel, who was appointed Chelsea’s manager in January amid a sluggish campaign, said the message to the team was this: “We need a top performance and we need to be at our best level, but we don’t need a miracle. We don’t need a miracle! We can do it. It’s not like we need crazy things to happen.”
The match came six weeks after European club soccer — and the sport as a whole — was rocked by 12 major clubs, including Chelsea and Manchester City, announcing they intended to abandon the Champions League and form their own closed competition.
The blowback was like nothing else seen in sports. From fans protesting outside stadiums to heads of state chiming in, the backlash sent most of the rebel clubs scurrying back to their traditional circles and groveling for forgiveness.
With Super League plans placed on the back burner, attention pivoted back to the Champions League, a competition with 66 years of tradition that is the aspiration of clubs big and small across the continent. This year’s final was scheduled for Istanbul, but because of pandemic-related issues, the venue shifted to a 50,000-seat stadium at reduced capacity.
Tuchel had used Pulisic as a starter and a sub over the past five months, and he decided to leave him in reserve Saturday. There was less drama around Steffen, a former University of Maryland and Columbus Crew standout. He has been a season-long understudy to the Brazilian starter, Ederson.
Before Saturday, a U.S. citizen had appeared in the final once: Neven Subotic, a former U.S. youth national team defender who represented Serbia on the senior level, started for Borussia Dortmund against Bayern Munich in 2013. U.S. forward Jovan Kirovski won a Champions League title with Dortmund in 1997, but he wasn’t in uniform for the final against Juventus.
With Pulisic and Steffen watching, teams on familiar terms attacked without hesitation. The tempo was high and rarely subsided.
Tuchel’s success at Chelsea stemmed from his team’s ability to defend, but on this day, the Blues pressed for an early breakthrough. Manchester City showed more bite in the attack. Phil Foden’s dangerous threat was extinguished at the last instant by Antonio Rüdiger.
Chelsea created genuine opportunities, but inefficiency cost the Blues as Havertz and Timo Werner faltered in the box — misses that raised questions about Tuchel’s decision to pass over Pulisic. And Tuchel’s defensive plans required adjustment late in the half when 36-year-old center back Thiago Silva was lost to injury.
In the 42nd minute, however, Chelsea struck. It started with goalkeeper Edouard Mendy finding Ben Chilwell along the sideline. Chilwell’s superb, one-touch pass to Mason Mount created possibilities.
Downfield, Havertz made a terrific run to get inside of left back Oleksandr Zinchenko. From just inside Chelsea’s end, Mount had time to turn and deliver a sumptuous long ball that connected with Havertz in stride.
Ederson’s charge was too late. Havertz touched it past him at the top of the box, leaving nothing between the German forward and the welcoming target. His finish from 12 yards was his first goal in 12 Champions League appearances with Chelsea this season and 20 overall with the Blues and the Bundesliga’s Bayer Leverkusen.
“I’ve waited a long time,” Havertz said, “and now I’ve done it.”
Manchester City’s hopes were dented early in the second half when superstar Kevin De Bruyne departed with a head injury following Rüdiger’s challenge. The Belgian midfielder left in tears, consoled by Manager Pep Guardiola and assisted to the dressing room.
Pulisic’s entrance injected fresh legs, energy and a counterattacking threat as Manchester City sought an equalizer. He had a golden opportunity to stretch the lead in the 73rd, narrowly missing wide after Ederson forced him to adjust his attempt.
Manchester City turned up the pressure, but Chelsea defended with resolve, diffusing trouble in the box and riding the leadership and steel of defensive midfielder N’Golo Kanté.
“We overcome some difficult moments and some very dangerous moments with fantastic attitude [toward] defending,” Tuchel said. “We were brave even in moments where it was hard to escape the pressure.”
Seven minutes of stoppage time came and went, ending with Riyad Mahrez’s tying bid whizzing past the top right corner.
“We deserve to score one goal. We could not do it,” Guardiola said. “Congratulations, Chelsea.”
Chelsea — and its special American player — is on top of European soccer.
“It’s just incredible,” Pulisic said. “I’m just so proud of this team.”