Three years ago, the US men’s team were watching the World Cup on television instead of playing in it. But with the 2022 edition in sight, things are looking much more encouraging. Christian Pulisic’s successive victories in the Champions League and Concacaf Nations League finals are symbolic of the team’s revival. He is far from alone though. Alongside him stand the likes of Giovanni Reyna, Weston McKennie, and Sergiño Dest, all of whom play for some of the best clubs in the world. This kind of success in Europe was unprecedented just five years ago for Americans, before Pulisic established himself as a young phenomenon at Borussia Dortmund.
But it wasn’t the first time we’ve seen an American lift the most coveted trophy in club soccer, nor is it the first time Dortmund have helped American soccer players break into European competition.
Jovan Kirovski was part of Dortmund’s victorious 1996-97 Champions League campaign although, unlike Pulisic, he did not play in the final. And both Kirovski and Pulisic, whose grandfather was born in Croatia, had family links with Europe.
“My parents came here from Macedonia, so that was a big step for me to go back to Europe at 16 when I had an education [that] would have been paid for … but they supported me and I was very fortunate to be successful and create a career out of it, and make a career after my playing career,” says Kirovski, who is now technical director at Los Angeles Galaxy.
He knew moving to Europe at such a young age was a gamble, particularly because at the time American soccer players were seen as an oddity at best.
“We didn’t have many Americans abroad at the time, so it was always, ‘the Americans don’t play soccer, they play football, baseball, or basketball.’ Now, there’s more and more Americans there,” he says.
It’s a testament then to Kirovski’s talent that he was good enough for Manchester United to sign him as a teenager. But problems with his work permit stymied his progress into the first team and he moved to Dortmund in 1996. “I was ready to take the next step and … was stopped by red tape and that was the hardest thing for me. But in the end, things happen for a reason,” he says.
Kirovski later told the LA Times, it was “a difficult task to make the final roster” at Dortmund, and his time in Europe ended in 2004 at Birmingham City, after 23 appearances in one-and-a-half seasons for the Premier League team. Kirovski had a successful playing career in MLS afterwards – winning two titles with the Galaxy – but his experiences in Europe would remain valuable when he retired in 2011.
Kirovski was appointed technical director for the Galaxy in 2013, and they won an MLS Cup a year later. The knowledge and contacts he had built during his time in Europe helped him secure several high-profile players, culminating in the 2018 signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
And while Kirovski is committed to helping steer Galaxy towards a sixth MLS Cup, he still keeps an eye on how the new generation of US players in Europe are doing. The 45-year-old shies away from saying he paved the way for Pulisic’s success however.
“I don’t know if I would say that,” Kirovski said. “I just think it’s great for the sport here in this country to have him play in the final, play at a big club, win the Champions League – and it’s not just him, you see other players climbing, with McKennie at Juventus and [Tyler] Adams at Leipzig. I think it’s great for the sport and it’s great for everyone here in the soccer world in the United States.”
Kirovski met Pulisic during a visit back to Dortmund and he is optimistic about an American eventually surpassing Pulisic and scoring in a Champions League final.
“There was a huge gap from me to the next [American winning the Champions League]. I think now, our sport has grown so much that we have all these players at big clubs and there’s going to be many more coming,” he says. “This is just the beginning … with Major League Soccer playing a key role, I think that there’s going to be more and more players with the opportunity to do so. I think we had a pretty big gap and I think now it’ll happen, I would say, more regular than every, what, 25, 26 years.”
Kirovski is hopeful the rise of young American players can translate to success in major international tournaments. There’s no shortage of talent, he says: “We’re at the beginning of a generation of players that could really take us to another level.”
Kirovski is also cheered by the growth of interest in soccer in the US generally – something which he believes may lead to major stars returning home from Europe.
“Eventually, they will,” he says. “When I left home, there wasn’t MLS, there wasn’t a league. But, towards the end of my career, the league had started and it developed. Always in the back of my head, I always thought, ‘I would love to play close to home, at the LA Galaxy…’ Eventually, I did. The league is growing so much that, at one point, they’re going to want to come back and play here.”
The achievements of Kirovski, Pulisic and all who will follow are enormously exciting for American soccer fans. But the trickle down effects of their success is just as significant, as young Americans are inspired by their achievements. Kirovski agrees: “I can see this league growing and growing, and being one of the top leagues in the world one day.”
As Kirovski knows from personal experience, firsts are amazing. But so is what comes afterwards.