In the aftermath of Chelsea's 1-0 win against Manchester City in the Champions League final on Saturday, American star Christian Pulisic was joined on the field by his parents. He was passed the trophy for a photo, and as he gripped it with both hands, his father, Mark, rotated the winners' medal that hung from his neck around to his back.
Amid the celebration, Pulisic had pulled on a United States Soccer sweatshirt over his Chelsea jersey, and Dad's quick thinking allowed for an unobstructed view of the U.S. crest as he hoisted the most prestigious club soccer trophy in the world above his head.
Former USMNT player Jovan Kirovski was part of Borussia Dortmund's Champions League-winning team in 1997, but this moment for Pulisic was different. For many U.S. fans, it was surreal.
Not only did Pulisic feature off the bench in the final, he played an instrumental role in both Chelsea's qualification down the stretch last season and their run through the knockout rounds this campaign. Without Pulisic, it's fair to question whether Chelsea would have been in the competition at all or how far they would have progressed.
No American men's player has ever played such an important role for a club at this level, and for Pulisic to do it at 22 years old points to a future of which there is no domestic peer. With that type of profile comes heightened expectations, and as the USMNT prepare for their first competitive match since 2019 on Thursday, the budding optimism about the team is only partially due to Pulisic.
What makes the U.S. intriguing as World Cup qualifying approaches in the fall is the team's depth. Of the 23 players on the the U.S. roster for the inaugural CONCACAF Nations League Finals, 10 -- including Pulisic -- won at least one European trophy this year.
"It's amazing. I can't say enough about how proud we are for the players, no matter what competition they're in," U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said. "They're in teams that are competing to win the titles and that's exciting because [of what that does] for the culture of winning to the U.S. national team, and that's what we're looking for.
"When we step on the field and we compete to win these trophies, we want guys that really understand what it means to win, to value what it means to win, but also having the expectation that winning is what we're looking for and anything less than that isn't good enough. Now we have a group that can do it."
Of the group of players who won trophies in Europe this year, the average age is 22 and skews even younger when looking strictly at outfield players, as the two oldest are goalkeepers: Manchester City's Zack Steffen, 26, and Club Brugge's Ethan Horvath, 25, both of whom are primarily backups.
After helping guide the Philadelphia Union to the Supporters' Shield in Major League Soccer, Brenden Aaronson, 20, and Mark McKenzie, 22, moved to FC Salzburg (Austria) and Genk (Belgium), respectively. Playing for American manager Jesse Marsch, Aaronson helped Salzburg to the Austrian Cup and their eighth straight domestic title, while McKenzie was part of Genk's Belgium Cup-winning side that also reached the final qualifying round for next year's Champions League.
Weston McKennie, 22, was a revelation in midfield for Juventus, and while The Old Lady's fourth-place finish in Serie A led to manager Andrea Pirlo's dismissal, the club bagged two pieces of hardware (Supercoppa Italiana and Coppa Italia) along the way. Timothy Weah, 21, appeared in 28 matches for Lille as they unseated Paris Saint-Germain to become champions in Ligue 1, scoring three goals in 867 minutes. Sergino Dest's move from Ajax to Barcelona was historic in its own right, and Dest, 20, picked up a Copa del Rey in his first year.
After breaking through at Borussia Dortmund last year, Giovanni Reyna, 18, played a significant role for the bulk of this season and helped the club win the DFB-Pokal for the fifth time in their history. Jordan Siebatcheu, who committed to the United States in March, scored 12 goals in the Swiss Super League as his club, Young Boys, ran away with the title.
Others came close, too. DeAndre Yedlin's Galatasaray finished tied atop the table in Turkey, only to lose out on goal differential. In Germany, Tyler Adams' RB Leipzig stayed close with Bayern Munich for much of the season before finishing second, while John Brooks' VfL Wolfsburg also received a Champions League spot with their fourth-place finish. In Belgium, Matt Miazga's Anderlecht finished third in the regular season. -- Kyle Bonagura
A few minutes with ... Tim Weah
For just the second time in the past nine seasons, PSG were beaten to the Ligue 1 title. A promising youth player coming through the French capital club, Weah contributed to this year's crown, providing Lille with scoring depth necessary to outlast Les Parisiens' star-studded squad.
The 21-year-old sat down with ESPN's Jeff Carlisle to talk his development as a senior player and the potential that this U.S. men's national team possesses this summer and into the future.
Giovanni Reyna, Borussia Dortmund -- On the rise: It's asking a lot of an 18-year-old to consistently contribute to a club with the ambition of Dortmund, but after his breakthrough in 2019-20, Reyna was expected to be the sort of supporting player who could take some of the pressure off the likes of Erling Haaland and Jadon Sancho. And he did that to start the season, registering 10 direct goal involvements (four goals, six assists) in his first 20 appearances. And then the production dried up. And then the minutes did, too, starting nine of 15 games from the bench between the middle of January and the start of April. He bounced back in the final six weeks of the season, starting seven of Dortmund's final 10 matches, delivering three goals and an assist in that stretch. The U.S. will need that sort of form from the New York City FC academy product if it's to overcome Mexico, Costa Rica and Honduras in the CONCACAF Nations League, which kicks off on Thursday.
Weston McKennie, Juventus -- Trending down: The Bianconeri exercised their option in March to make McKennie's loan move from Schalke 04 permanent, but just weeks later he broke local coronavirus restrictions by hosting a party at his home alongside teammates Paulo Dybala and Arthur. As the season neared its conclusion, then-manager Andrea Pirlo questioned the 22-year-old's professionalism, and it's not hard to surmise that trust had been lost in the onetime FC Dallas youth prodigy: he started just seven of Juve's final 19 games. McKennie was supposed to be the sort of energetic player who would define Pirlo's midfield, but with him no longer in the dugout and Massimiliano Allegri returning to Turin, McKennie now faces the prospect of proving to a new manager and his club's hierarchy that the first half of his debut season with Juventus was no illusion.
Brenden Aaronson, FC Salzburg -- On the rise: Aaronson took to European competition like a duck to water. He failed to start in just six of Salzburg's 25 matches following his midseason arrival, racking up seven goals and five assists in the process of securing an Austrian league and cup double. The 21-year-old is expected to remain with the Red Bull-backed club in 2021-22, a source tells ESPN's Jeff Carlisle, but so impactful have his performances been that there are already questions of whether the Philadelphia Union product is ready to take the next step and move into one of Europe's Big Five leagues.
DeAndre Yedlin, Galatasaray -- On the rise: Yedlin was going nowhere with Newcastle United. He made just six appearances in the club's first 21 Premier League matches of the season. Then he packed his bags for Istanbul during the January transfer window. The 27-year-old played 11 of Galatasaray's 13 games after his move to Turkey, discounting a three-week period that saw him miss five games with an ankle injury. The move paid off, getting him back into the national team picture at the ultra-competitive right-back position: His nine minutes in the U.S.'s 2-1 friendly defeat to Switzerland were his first for the national team since November 2019.
Scouting report: Justin Che, Bayern Munich II
Che has equipped himself well for Bayern II after being handed six consecutive starts at the tail end of the season. At just 17, he's still to make his MLS debut for FC Dallas, but he has taken the step up to senior level while on loan in the rather demanding environment of third-tier German football with surprising ease.
Mainly featuring as a centre-back, with the odd cameo at right-back, the American looked particularly comfortable in the derby against then-promotion-chasing TSV 1860 Munich. In addition to being really smooth and "classy" on the ball -- which, admittedly, is a given when Bayern are involved -- Che also defends his own box well, especially impressive for an extremely young, "new generation" central defender (the type who often tend to boast more technical ability and steady passing game than traditional defensive abilities). Usually alert, allowing him to beat opponents to the ball, he's also physically skilled and happy to step forward with the ball even when under pressure.
The one moment to forget, though, was when an uncharacteristically poor touch allowed an opposing forward to nip in to nick the ball off his foot -- merely half a minute into the match against Hallescher FC in the last round of the season. The quick-thinking opponent went on to score the only goal of the game. Fortunately, by that point Che had already shown enough for Bayern to understand that this prospect is worth another look. -- Tor-Kristian Karlsen