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A Champions League guide for Americans who don’t really watch soccer

The Champions League final has more intrigue than ever for American fans.

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The biggest sporting event in the world this year is on Saturday. I know what you’re thinking: That’s impossible, the Super Bowl is in February, you idiot!

Look, I know what you mean. The Super Bowl IS a really big deal, especially in the United States where about 100 million people tune in. Worldwide, that number is usually about 150 million, which is definitely A LOT of people.

No, I’m actually talking about the Champions League Final, the biggest annual event in global sports. While the U.S. audience for Europe’s annual club soccer championship game is only about 3-4 million between English and Spanish coverage, worldwide that audience balloons to closer to 400 million (which is actually about 100 million fewer people than tune in for the World Cup final every four years).

I bring this up not to convince you that soccer is actually really cool, but more of a way to give you some ammunition to impress your friends at the next tailgate.

And if you’re the kind of person who’s into that sort of thing, you may be even more interested in this Champions League final than normal. That’s because there are some legitimate reasons American sports fans should care.

Here’s everything you’ll need to know:

Who’s playing?

Two of the richest and most valuable teams in the world: Manchester City and Chelsea. Both play their domestic games in the English Premier League and are considered “new money” clubs. In England where basically every team is more than 100 years old, that just means they’ve played in the lower leagues — that’s due to the whole promotion and relegation thing you’ve probably heard about at some point — recently enough that some of their fans actually remember it. Insanely rich people have since bought the clubs and turned them into wealthy behemoths.

Forbes ranked City the 13th ($4 billion) and Chelsea the 25th ($3.2B) most valuable sports clubs in the world, right there with the biggest NFL, NBA and MLB teams.

Both teams supposedly spent nearly $400 million on salaries in the 2020-21 season and the estimated market value of their rosters is right around $1 billion each.

How can anyone afford that?

The wealth of their ownerships is hard to overstate. Chelsea is owned by Russian oil oligarch Roman Abramovich, whose net worth is estimated at about $15 billion.

He’s actually the less well-heeled of the two. City is owned Sheikh Mansour, who is effectively a stand-in for the United Arab Emirates. His family’s estimated net worth is more than $1 trillion.

Wow, that’s so much money! They must dominate this sport, right?

Eh, not really. While Chelsea previously won the Champions League in 2011-12, this is only their third-ever trip to the final and their first since winning it. They just barely finished fourth in the EPL this year, which means they qualified for next year’s tournament by skin of their teeth. Although City is coming off their third EPL title in four years, this is the first time they’ve ever qualified for the Champions League final. When Mansour bought City in 2008, it was with the express goal of winning Champions League, and after several notable flops the club is now on the precipice.

All that money must buy them some exciting players.

It’s true, both teams have plenty of talent but neither has the sort of worldwide superstar that the casual sports fan probably knows. Leading the line for City are players like İlkay Gündoğan, Raheem Sterling and Kevin De Bruyne. Chelsea’s top scorers are Jorginho, Mason Mount, Timo Werner and Tammy Abraham. All exceptionally good players, but even your buddy from college who started following Barcelona after his semester abroad in Spain probably can’t give you much of a scouting report on any of them.

Can you, uh, give me a scouting report?

This is not meant to be a technical column but I see you’re now getting invested, so here goes: Chelsea actually fired their coach — genuine club legend Frank Lampard — earlier this year after spending an ungodly amount on transfers for new players. Almost all that money was spent on attacking players, but their defense is really why they’re here. The Blues have only given up four goals during their entire Champions League campaign, an average of .33 per game. They allowed the second fewest goals in Premier League play, too.

The player who probably best encapsulates Chelsea is Timo Werner, one of those expensive offseason transfers. He’s extremely fast and has moments of absolute brilliance, but also has a rather hilarious penchant for missing seemingly easy shots.

City is a bit more free-flowing, albeit with an equally stout defense. Pep Guardiola is considered one of soccer’s technical geniuses and while they don’t have one big scorer, De Bruyne is one of the smoothest players in the world and a playmaking dynamo. He’s got 10 goals and 18 assists in all his games this year. City led the EPL in scoring, averaged more than two goals a game in Champions League and have outscored their opponents by 90 goals across all competitions this year.

In case you haven’t gathered, City are definitely the favorites to win this, even if Chelsea has won two of three previous meetings this year.

Any notable Americans involved?

Actually, both teams have one! Zack Steffen is a backup goalkeeper for City and even made seven starts across the various competitions this year, including one in Champions League. He’s probably the USMNT’s starting goalkeeper for the foreseeable future.

Chelsea has arguably the best American player in Christian Pulisic, who has six goals and four assists across all competitions this year. Pulisic had a goal and an assist in the Champions League semifinals, becoming the first American to do either that late in the tournament.

One of them will become the second-ever American man to win Champions League.

Wait, aren’t Americans bad at soccer?

I get it, the last time you heard about the U.S. men’s national team, it was probably because they failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup... or maybe it was earlier this year when they missed out on the upcoming Olympics. But we’re actually in the midst of what’s either promising to be a golden generation for American soccer players or the start of the long-promised era of global competence.

That belief is mostly grounded in Americans’ success in European clubs. Steffen was the first American to earn a Premier League medal and combined with Pulisic marks the first time two USMNT players both finished in the top 4. There were six USMNT players who played in the Premier League this year, the most ever (h/t @paulcarr).

Beyond England, Americans were starting for some of the world’s biggest clubs like Barcelona and Juventus; won four league titles; claimed six domestic cups; and every team in the Bundesliga seems to have at least one player repping the red, white and blue. That friend of yours who won’t shut up about his semester abroad is probably going to become even more insufferable, but now you might at least know what he’s talking about.

OK, when is the game?

It’s scheduled to kick off at 3 p.m. ET, on Saturday.

How can I watch it?

CBS just acquired the English-language rights and will be airing it on broadcast channels. It can also be streamed through Paramount+ (affiliate link) or on FuboTV (affiliate link). If you’re more interested in hearing the Spanish call, TUDN will have that.

Anything notable about the broadcast?

Well, if you know anything about American soccer, you probably know about Clint Dempsey. He was the first legitimate American attacking star to play in England, tied Landon Donovan for the most goals scored for the United States men’s national team and then retired in 2018. He kinda fell off the face of the earth after retiring to North Carolina, but recently surfaced for a lengthy podcast interview with some former teammates. About a week later, it was announced he’d be one of the studio analysts for this game. He’s always had a reputation for being someone who doesn’t really care what others think of him, so this definitely has the potential to be interesting.

Who should I root for?

Good question, here’s our bloggers’ pitches:

Crowning achievement for City: “Manchester City is worth rooting for because you are someone who appreciates greatness. We are witnessing one of the greatest managers of all time re-invent himself at City. From the centurion Premier League champs (they claimed 100 points in 2018-19) to being the first side to win all four domestic cups, Pep Guardiola has done nearly all at City. The only thing missing is a UCL trophy. This UCL Final is the culmination of a dream from fans, Pep, the players and ownership. Root for greatness.” - Saul Garcia, Bitter and Blue

Because somehow Chelsea are the lovable underdogs: “Chelsea are the underdogs here, even if we did deny City one trophy already this season in the FA Cup. We also have the most adorable footballer in the world, N’Golo Kanté, who happens to be one of the very best as well. And why would you ever want to root against him?” - David Pasztor, We Ain’t Got No History