It’s probably not possible for countries as large, varied and divided as the United States, to have a defined national character. It’s too nebulous a concept, too narrow a thing to pindown for such a big, diverse group of people.
It’s undeniable, though, that some Americans are accustomed to moving through the world in a certain way. Some see it as fearless, others view it as arrogant, but, on the broadest level, they’re used to setting the cultural, political and economic agenda in most places on the planet.
That has never been the case in men’s soccer, though. Outside of select immigrant communities (particularly Latino), the men’s game exists in the shadows in the U.S. It’s more popular today than ever before, but it’s still niche, engaged in a never-ending battle for hearts and minds both at home and abroad. In a world in which Americans are almost always the favorites, the U.S. men have forever been a global underdog.
U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter, captain Tyler Adams and star attacker Christian Pulisic have spoken repeatedly over the last few months about their mission to change the way the world perceives American soccer. They won’t have a better chance to do that than on Friday, when the U.S. will take on heavily-favored England in a massive clash at the World Cup in Qatar.
Teammates turned World Cup rivals: The many layers of U.S. vs. England
“I think it’s obviously a huge opportunity to fast track the impact that we can have,” Adams said on Thursday. “When you get a result in a game like this, people start to respect Americans a little bit more.”
Our nations’ shared language, special political relationship and England’s status as one of the most important soccer countries in the world means the European nation holds an important place in the U.S. soccer psyche. We consume their league, are taught by their coaches at nearly every level from the grassroots on up and have long seemed to give added significance to anyone in the game who happens to speak with a British accent.
The importance we give England isn’t so much because of a direct inferiority complex as it is general insecurity about our standing in the game. Whether domestically or internationally, just about everyone involved in the sport has experienced the occasional disrespect that comes with playing, watching or being a fan of men’s soccer in America. For kids, that may have come in the form of schoolyard taunts. For fans, it might revolve around the poor public perception of MLS or the men’s national team. For professional players and coaches, it’s historically meant being viewed as lesser than their counterparts from other countries, regardless of their actual ability.
For the most part, this isn’t such a fun experience. We want to belong; we’d like to be seen as real players. Getting a stamp of approval from England is by no means necessary, but it would no doubt feel good for many in the American men’s soccer community.
Clint Dempsey understands this dynamic better than most. One of the greatest men’s players in U.S. history, Dempsey was largely overlooked when he was growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he learned the game primarily through playing in the town’s mostly-Latino men’s league. Despite his relatively anonymous beginnings, he scratched his way to the pros, first in MLS, then in Europe, where he had an excellent run with Fulham in the English Premier League and earned a big move to Tottenham before he returned to the U.S. to finish his career with the Seattle Sounders. Along the way, he played in three World Cups and tied the all-time record for most goals for the men’s national team.
Where England v USA will be won and lost: set pieces, Pulisic and pressing
For all of his talent and success, Dempsey feels he never really got his due in Europe. He certainly wasn’t a huge star among the general public back at home. The respect he did get, he had to earn — repeatedly.
“Being an American player, no matter where you are, you have a chip on your shoulder,” he said during a recent interview in New York City.
That was the norm for American players as recently as five or six years ago. It didn’t matter if guys like Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden or, in eras before theirs, Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos were as technically proficient and tactically sound as all but the absolute best of their peers. As Americans, they were often written off by folks from other countries as little more than hardworking and industrious.
That kind of attitude trickled into how people thought about the national team. There’s perhaps been no better example of that dismissiveness than the buildup to the last time the U.S. and England met at a men’s World Cup in their opening group stage game in South Africa in 2010.
The morning after the countries were drawn together in December 2009, English tabloid The Sun splashed “EASY” across their backpage. The headline was an acronym for the four teams placed into Group C: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Yanks. The subhed was even more arrogant: “USA, Algeria, Slovenia: Best English group since The Beatles.”
Dempsey, Holden and fellow U.S. international Maurice Edu were all playing in the U.K. at the time, with Dempsey in the midst of his run at Fulham, Holden at Bolton and Edu at Scottish club Rangers. Each of them remembered that headline vividly.
“I definitely remember seeing those headlines, being over there and the banter with your teammates and the back and forth, the arrogance,” said Edu. “It was arrogance. Blatantly, that’s what it was. But that’s the world that we live in, in terms of how we were viewed from a global standpoint.”
“We all saw that,” said the Scottish-born Holden, who will serve as the color commentator for FOX’s broadcast of the match on Friday. “And I think we all saw that as an opportunity.”
The idea that England would have no problems handling the U.S. added to the American players’ general sense of indignation about how they were thought of in Europe. The night before the game, after coach Bob Bradley showed the U.S. a few final video clips, the talk among players turned to how they felt they were being underestimated by an England team they knew would be under massive pressure. England entered the 2010 World Cup with huge expectations, with the media and public putting pressure on Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Co. to win the nation’s first World Cup since 1966.
Not that the external noise bothered them in the opening minutes, as Gerrard gave England the lead in the fourth minute of that match. The U.S. were no slouches, though — they had beaten an incredible Spain team and took a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the Confederations Cup the summer before. They were gifted an equalizer at the end of the first half when goalkeeper Rob Green fumbled Dempsey’s shot from distance, then actually rattled the post through striker Jozy Altidore on a chance in the second half.
“Even when England scored, when Gerrard scored, I think there was still a feeling that we were right in in this game,” Holden said. “We were worthy of a point that day, if not three. And all of those storylines going in, I think favored us in many ways. We were quite happy for the conversation to be about England and not about us, to kind of fly in under the radar, a little bit low pressure.”
A subtle underdog case for USMNT vs. England exists
The U.S. didn’t win that game, but they did end up topping the group, finishing tied with England on five points but claiming the top spot ahead of them via tiebreaker. It remains the only time a U.S. men’s team has won its group at the World Cup. For Holden, it’s “forever bragging rights” whenever an English fan comes at him.
Things have changed for individual American players in the 12 years since South Africa. Thanks in large part to the work of players like Dempsey, Edu and Holden and the generations that preceded them, USMNT stars like Pulisic, Adams and midfielder Weston McKennie have been afforded more and better European opportunities than any previous generation of American players.
The stigma that past U.S. players faced overseas has evaporated a bit, too. Brenden Aaronson, who plays with Adams at Premier League club Leeds United, said in Qatar last week that he doesn’t feel like he’s ever been treated differently as a player in Europe than he was when he played in the U.S. Dempsey, Edu and Holden have all felt that shift, too.
Collectively, though, the Americans still have a long way to go. The U.S. did fail to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, after all. They’ve still never done anything of serious repute on the world stage. They want that to change, and they want to change how they’re perceived in the process.
It’ll be difficult to achieve that on Friday. England is better than the U.S. at basically every position. One could mount a serious argument that there isn’t a single player on the Americans’ 26-man squad who would make the England World Cup roster. The style of match should suit the U.S. better than how play unfolded in Monday’s draw against Wales, but style can only go so far when there’s a significant talent discrepancy. Another draw would be an excellent result for the Americans.
If they can snag a point, they’d make a dent in their unending battle for respect and relevance, both at home and abroad. And if they can somehow pull off an upset win against England, well, as Pulisic said last week, that would change a lot of things.
“It hasn’t been the top sport or whatever back in the States, but we want to change the way the world sees American soccer, to be honest, that’s one of our goals,” he said.
“I don’t think people necessarily get anything wrong. I think we have to prove ourselves, we haven’t been maybe at the level of some of these world powerhouses in recent decades. We’ve had good teams with a lot of heart in us, but I think we can take it to that next step. With a successful World Cup, I think that can change a lot of things.
(Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)