England’s ‘dream draw’ at the World Cup is a golden opportunity for the USA
Gregg Berhalter made the grand proclamation at his first-ever meeting with the US men’s national team.
“We’re on a mission together,” he told two dozen players, some of whom he’ll be taking to the World Cup in the fall. “What we want to do,” he said on that quiet day in January 2019, “is change the way the world sees American football.”
He was the newly minted head coach of a shaky program at the time. Approval levels in the States had reached 21st century lows. Meanwhile, global approval ratings have never been so high. Berhalter knew that. He had traveled the world as a player and coach. He knew how world football viewed American men. He had heard Brits mock Bob Bradley, who became the first US-born manager in the English Premier League in 2016. He later overheard fellow American coach Jesse Marsch talk about the “stigma.”
“I know that American football is very respected,” Berhalter says today, but he and everyone else in the sport also knows that there are prejudices, stereotypes and unflattering opinions. And that’s why the 2022 World Cup is, as Berhalter said, “an opportunity”.
The disrespect was shown almost immediately on Friday night after the USMNT drew England in their second game.
“YANKEE DODDLE DANDY” yelled a British tabloid celebrates England’s happiness.
“England’s World Cup hopes soared after being awarded a dream draw in Group B,” another wrote.
At 2pm ET on Black Friday, with tens of millions of viewers on Fox and Telemundo in the US, with tens of millions of viewers in the UK and with many more viewers around the world, USMNT will have a chance to change all of that. To change perceptions abroad and assumptions at home that America can’t develop elite men’s soccer players, that it can’t compete with the kings of the World Cup, that the sport will always be secondary here.
“This is of course an opportunity for us to show what we’re made of,” said Berhalter on Friday. “She [England] have a good team, but so do we. We have a young team, we have a sporty team. We have a team that doesn’t fear much.”
‘We want to change how everyone looks at us.
It’s the first US men’s World Cup team to grow up with the Premier League singing in front of TV screens. They got used to the Saturday morning soundtrack that millions of Americans have come to know and love. Goaltender Zack Steffen would be watching with his father in Pennsylvania. Midfielder Tyler Adams watched Arsenal in New York every weekend.
Widely regarded as the best football league in the world, the Premier League has become a cultural touchstone for American sports fans over the last decade and the previous decade, and the virus has continued to spread. It’s a more frequent goal of the beautiful game than the MLS, the North American league. It’s the most watched and followed league here among non-Spanish speakers. Its popularity and quality often fuel the belief that the American game has yet to catch up.
And so there will be Americans who switch to Fox or Telemundo the day after Thanksgiving and recognize more players in English colors than American ones. You will know Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling. You may know Jack Grealish and Jordan Henderson, but you may not know Ricardo Pepi or even Adams.
There will also be millions of casual fans who suspect England’s superiority. And on paper, of course, these assumptions will be correct. England is the top seeded team, the semi-finalists of the 2018 World Cup, the finalists of the Euro 2020. Their players are worth more than those of any other national team according to Transfermarkt. His aura is equal parts obnoxious and overwhelming.
But that will all add to the occasion. The stage will match Portugal in 2014 or maybe even surpass them. Fox executives celebrated on Friday night. US players also did because they heard Berhalter outline the mission.
“Playing against England, playing against such a notorious team with so many great players, talented players – those are the games you want to play in,” Adams said.
“We want to change how everyone views us as a player and as a nation,” Adams continued. “We want to have an impact, of course on ourselves and our team, but ultimately on how football is viewed by fans in the US” – particularly after failing to qualify in 2018, he noted – “and then ultimately globally. They want to earn the respect of some of the best footballing nations in the world.”
‘The kind of games you want’
In reality, many US players have earned that respect as individuals. Many now know their English counterparts not because they see them on TV, but because they share similar stages every weekend. Adams plays for RB Leipzig, a top four team in Germany. Christian Pulisic is at Chelsea. Weston McKennie plays for Juventus. Sergino Dest is in Barcelona. Gio Reyna plays for Borussia Dortmund. The list goes on and seems to be expanding every year. Matt Turner will soon play at Arsenal.
Steffen is the No. 2 goalkeeper at Man City, where he shares a daily training pitch with Grealish, Sterling, Phil Foden, John Stones and Kyle Walker, all of whom should be on England’s World Cup list.
Grealish spotted Steffen on Friday morning, hours before the draw, and smashed: “Ohh I hope we draw you guys!”
They laughed about it and then watched the matchup come to pass. “It’s funny how the world works,” Steffen told Emox News just minutes after the draw was completed.
Pulisic, meanwhile, received a call from “Mason” – his Chelsea team-mate and now England opponent Mason Mount. They also laughed and talked excitedly. Pulisic will face some ‘good friends’ on November 25 and maybe even a direct matchup with Chelsea full-backs Reece James or Ben Chilwell.
Pulisic also spent a year of his childhood in England. That’s where US midfielder Yunus Musah grew up. Left-back Antonee Robinson has lived there all his life. DeAndre Yedlin, Ethan Horvath, Josh Sargent and Luca de la Torre have also played there. For her, the intimacy most fans have acquired through television screens is intimate.
Again, this will elevate the moment and spice up the narrative. All of this will generate interest and raise the stage. US-England will be one of the most compelling group games of the World Cup, on a national holiday, with only mediocre college football to rival sports-loving eyeballs.
In that sense, it’s also the “dream draw” for a confident USMNT.
“It will definitely be a tough game,” said Steffen. “But that’s the kind of games you want.