Tuesday, September 27 2022

Gregg Berhalter made the grand proclamation at his very first meeting with the U.S. men’s national team.

“We’re on a mission together,” he told two dozen players, some of whom he’ll take to the World Cup this fall. “What we’re looking to do,” he said on that tranquil day in January 2019, “is change the way the world views American soccer.”

He was, at the time, the freshly-minted head coach of a program reeling. Stateside approval ratings had hit 21st-century lows. Worldwide approval ratings, meanwhile, had never been all that high. Berhalter knew this. He’d traveled the globe as a player and coach. He knew how world football regarded American men. He’d heard how Brits sneered at Bob Bradley, who in 2016 became the first U.S.-born manager in England’s Premier League. He’d later hear fellow American coach Jesse Marsch speak about the “stigma.”

“I know that there is a lot of respect for American soccer,” Berhalter says now, but he and everybody else in the sport also know that there are biases, stereotypes, and unflattering opinions. And that’s why the 2022 World Cup, as Berhalter said, “is an opportunity.”

The disrespect appeared almost instantly on Friday night, after the USMNT drew England in its second game.

“YANKEE DODDLE DANDY,” screamed one British tabloid celebrating England’s luck.

“England’s hopes of World Cup glory soared after they were handed a dream draw in Group B,” another wrote.

Yet another called it an “easy-looking draw.” A fourth said “England were given a clear run through to the quarterfinals.”

At 2 p.m. ET on Black Friday, with tens of millions watching on Fox and Telemundo in the U.S., with tens of millions watching in Britain, and with many more watching across planet earth, the USMNT will have a chance to change all of this. To change perceptions abroad and assumptions back home that America can’t develop elite men’s soccer players, that it can’t compete with World Cup royalty, that the sport will always be secondary to a few others here.

“For sure, this is an opportunity for us to show what we’re made of,” Berhalter said Friday. “They [England] have a good team, but so do we. We have a young team, we have an athletic team. We have a team that doesn’t have a lot of fear.”

We want to change how everyone looks at us’

It is the first U.S. men’s World Cup team that grew up with the Premier League singing off TV screens. They grew accustomed to the Saturday morning soundtrack that millions of Americans have come to know and love. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen would watch with his father in Pennsylvania. Midfielder Tyler Adams would watch Arsenal every weekend in New York.

The Premier League, widely considered the world’s best soccer league, became a cultural touchstone for American sports fans last decade and the previous one, and the bug has continued to spread. It’s a more common gateway to the beautiful game than MLS, the North American league. It’s the most-watched and most-followed league here among non-Spanish speakers. Its popularity and quality often feed the belief that the American game isn’t yet up to snuff.

And so, there will be Americans who flip to Fox or Telemundo the day after Thanksgiving and recognize more players in England colors than American ones. They’ll know Harry Kane from Tottenham and Raheem Sterling from Manchester City. They might know Jack Grealish and Jordan Henderson, but perhaps not Ricardo Pepi or even Adams.

There will also be millions of casual fans who presume England’s superiority. And on paper, of course, those assumptions will be correct. England is the top-seeded team, the 2018 World Cup semifinalist, the Euro 2020 finalist. Its players, per Transfermarkt, are worth more than any other national team’s. Its aura is equal parts obnoxious and overwhelming.

But that will all contribute to the occasion. The stage will equal Portugal in 2014, or perhaps surpass it. Fox executives celebrated Friday night. U.S. players did, too, because they’ve heard Berhalter outline the mission.

“To play against England, to play against such a notorious side with so many big players, talented players — these are the games that you want to be a part of,” Adams said.

“We want to change how everyone looks at us as players, and as a nation,” Adams continued. “We want to have an impact, obviously on ourselves, and our team, but ultimately on how soccer is viewed by the fans in the U.S.” — especially after the 2018 qualifying failure, he noted — “and then ultimately globally. You want to gain the respect of some of the best footballing nations in the world.”

‘The kind of games you want’

In reality, many U.S. players, as individuals, have earned that respect. Many are now familiar with their English counterparts not because they watch them on TV, but because they share similar stages every weekend. Adams plays at RB Leipzig, a top-four team in Germany. Christian Pulisic is at Chelsea. Weston McKennie is at Juventus. Sergiño Dest is at Barcelona. Gio Reyna is at Borussia Dortmund. The list goes on, and seems to expand by the year. Matt Turner will soon be at Arsenal.

Steffen is the No. 2 keeper at Man City, where he shares a training pitch daily with Grealish, Sterling, Phil Foden, John Stones and Kyle Walker, all of whom should be on England’s World Cup roster.

Grealish saw Steffen Friday morning, hours before the draw, and belted: “Ohh, I hope we draw you guys!”

They laughed about it, then watched as the matchup materialized. “It’s funny how the world works,” Steffen told Yahoo Sports mere minutes after the draw’s conclusion.

Pulisic, meanwhile, got a call from “Mason” — his Chelsea teammate and now English opponent, Mason Mount. They laughed too, and spoke with excitement. Pulisic will have a couple “good friends” opposite him on Nov. 25, and perhaps even a direct matchup with Chelsea fullbacks Reece James or Ben Chilwell.

Pulisic also spent a year of his childhood in England. U.S. midfielder Yunus Musah grew up there. Left back Antonee Robinson has spent his entire life there. DeAndre Yedlin, Ethan Horvath, Josh Sargent and Luca de la Torre have also played there. For them, the familiarity that most fans have acquired through TV screens is intimate.

This, too, will elevate the moment, and spice up the narrative. All of it will generate interest and lift the stage. U.S.-England will be one of the World Cup’s most compelling group games, on a national holiday, with only mediocre college football as competition for sports-loving eyeballs.

It is, in this sense, the “dream draw” for a confident USMNT as well.

“It’s gonna be a tough game, for sure,” Steffen said. “But those are the kind of games you want. And that’s the competition you wanna play … Really to prove to the rest of the world what we already know.”

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