CHAMPIONS LEAGUE: Emotional Ethan Horvath Rises to the Occasion in Club Brugge’s 2-1 Win at Zenit St. Petersburg

By: Michael Lewis

When the final whistle of Club Brugge's 2-1 victory against Zenit St. Petersburg sounded on Tuesday night, Ethan Horvath dropped to the ground on his back and let it all out. He cried.

It was the culmination of patience, determination and uncertainty through the past 13 months.

It would have would have been difficult for a Hollywood script writer to pen a better ending for the 25-year-old U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper following the UEFA Champions League Group F match in St. Petersburg, Russia.

"It was bit of a whirlwind situation," Horvath said during the Champions League preview show on CBS Sports HQ Wednesday afternoon.

He had not played in a competitive match for Brugge in some 13 months. On Sunday, Horvath learned that regular goalkeeper Simon Mignolet had tested positive for COVID-19 – news that "kind of shook the club around" - and that he would be guarding the goal.

Before the warmup, Brugge manager Philippe Clement had some encouraging words for Horvath.

"He knows how hard I've been working for this moment," the keeper said. "It's not easy. Only one goalkeeper can play, and he just knows all of the hard work I've always put in and what I show in the trainings. He has the trust and belief in you. [He said] ‘you show it every day in the training, and this isn't my first Champions League game and that I've been here before and just to go out and enjoy it.’"

Horvath conceded a freakish own goal in the 74th minute. Dejan Lovern drilled a 30-yard bullet that hit the post and caromed off the goalkeeper's back into the goal. It was the first goal he allowed in four UCL matches. Instead of losing confidence or panicking, Horvath rose to the occasion, making two vital saves late during the stretch.

He denied a point-blank shot on Artur Dzyuba in the 79th minute and turned away another dangerous opportunity from Wendel in the 89th minute before Charles De Ketelaere tallied the game-winner for the Belgian side in stoppage time.

While on the ground, Horvath was congratulated by teammates.

"I think everybody was just so happy for me," he said. "Everybody knows that all of the hard work I've put in. I'm always there for the team if guys want to do extra shooting, extra whatever. This is a team sport and I want the team to succeed, I want us to succeed and win the league and win trophies."

Horvath, who has made four appearances with the USMNT, said he received a huge assist from his
parents and fiancée before the match.

"They did a fantastic job of just calming me down and just making sure I remembered that this isn't my first Champions League game, that I had played in Champions League before and I had shown success and shown that I am capable of doing it before."

In fact, Horvath hadn't seen his parents for months during the COVID-19 pandemic. "For me, it has been up and down," he said.

His parents have been a rock for Horvath since he turned pro at the age of 16, making huge sacrifices. His father took a leave of absence from his teaching job so he and his mother could help him out in the early stages of his career with Molde (Norway) in 2013.

"They sold their house, sold everything so that I could pursue my dream of becoming a professional over in Europe," Horvath said. "With not playing in such a long time and then last night, being able to contribute in the way that I did, I couldn't have been prouder of myself and my teammates."

After Tuesday’s match, he received a message from USMNT teammate Christian Pulisic, who played in Chelsea's scoreless home draw against Sevilla later on Tuesday.

Pulisic’s message was that "he saw everything and just how proud he was and happy he was for me," Horvath said.

"That means the world to me because we're very close," he added. "With everything that's been going on behind the scenes and whatnot, he's helped me a lot. He just reminded me that I had done this before and there's nothing to be nervous or nothing to be afraid of because I've shown what I'm capable (of) and what I can do."

Club Brugge has challenging Champions League home matches against Lazio (Oct. 28) and Dortmund and USMNT teammate Gio Reyna coming up (Nov. 11), but Horvath wasn't looking that far ahead.

"First things first," he said. "On the weekend, we have a league game, so we'll put our focus on that."

His team visits OH Leuven in a Belgian First Division match on Saturday.

"Moving forward in the Champions League I have to say the fantastic thing about this group and the coach as well, we kind of put this mindset as 'Okay, everybody doesn't think of Brugge as a big team, but we put it on ourselves we have five more games. All we can do is win. Nobody is going to expect us to go away to Zenit and win, nobody is going to expect us to get a result against Lazio or Dortmund.' I think we are okay in this underdog role. So, all we can do is go out and give it our best. Maybe we have another night like last night."