It is probably not possible for countries as large, diverse, and divided as the United States to have a defined national character. It’s too nebulous a concept, too narrow a thing, to pin down for such a large, diverse group of people.
However, there is no denying that some Americans are used to moving around the world in a certain way. Some consider it fearless, others arrogant, but in the broadest sense they are used to setting the cultural, political and economic agenda in most places around the world.
That has never been the case in men’s football. Outside of select immigrant communities (particularly Latinos), the man game in the US exists in the shadows. It’s more popular today than ever, but it’s still niche and in a never-ending battle for hearts and minds at home and abroad. In a world where Americans are almost always the favourites, US men have always been a global underdog.
US head coach Gregg Berhalter, captain Tyler Adams and star attacker Christian Pulisic have spoken repeatedly in recent months about their mission to change the way the world perceives American football. They have no better chance of doing so than on Friday when the USA take on heavily favored England in a mighty match at the World Cup in Qatar.
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“I think it’s obviously a great opportunity to quickly track the impact that we can have,” Adams said Thursday. “When you get a result in a game like this, people start to respect Americans a little bit more.”
Our nations’ common language, special political ties and England’s status as one of the most important footballing nations in the world mean that the European nation holds an important place in the US football psyche. We consume their league, are tutored by their trainers at almost every level from grassroots up, and have long seemed to add extra meaning to anyone in the game who happens to speak with a British accent.
The importance we attach to England is less due to a direct inferiority complex and more to a general uncertainty about our standing in the game. Whether domestic or international, just about everyone involved with the sport has experienced the occasional disrespect that comes with playing, watching, or being a fan of men’s soccer in America. For children, this may have taken the form of taunts in the schoolyard. For fans, it could be about the poor public perception of MLS or the men’s national team. Historically, for professional players and coaches, it means being seen as inferior to their peers from other countries, regardless of their actual ability.
For the most part, this is not such a fun experience. We want to belong; We want to be seen as real players. A seal of approval from England is by no means necessary, but it would undoubtedly 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 US history, Dempsey was largely overlooked growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he learned the game primarily by playing in the city’s mostly Latino men’s league. Despite his relatively anonymous beginnings, he clawed his way to the pros, first in MLS, then in Europe, where he enjoyed an excellent run with Fulham in the English Premier League and earned a big move to Tottenham before returning to the US, to finish his career with the Seattle Sounders. He also played at three World Cups and set the record for most goals for the men’s national team.
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For all his talent and success, Dempsey feels like he’s never really come into his own in Europe. He certainly wasn’t a huge star among the general public at home. He had to earn the respect he got – again and again.
“As an American player, no matter where you go, you have a chip on your shoulder,” he said in a recent interview in New York City.
That was the norm for American players five or six years ago. It didn’t matter if guys like Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden or, in the days before them, Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos were as technically and tactically adept as the absolute best of their peers. As Americans, they were often dismissed by people from other countries as little more than industrious and industrious.
That kind of attitude affected how people felt about the national team. There is perhaps no better example of this rejection than preparing for USA and England’s final meeting at a Men’s World Cup in their first group stage game in South Africa in 2010.
The morning after the countries’ draw in December 2009, the English tabloid The Sun splashed ‘EASY’ on the back. The headline was an acronym for the four teams in Group C: England, Algeria, Slovenia, Amis. The subhed was even more arrogant: “USA, Algeria, Slovenia: Best English group since the Beatles.”
Dempsey, Holden and fellow USA international Maurice Edu were all playing in Britain at the time, with Dempsey midway through his run at Fulham, Holden at Bolton and Edu at Scottish club Rangers. Each of them vividly remembered this headline.
“I definitely remember seeing those headlines, being over there and the banter with your teammates and the back and forth, the arrogance,” Edu said. “That was arrogance. Obviously it was. But this is the world we live in in terms of how we were viewed from a global standpoint.”
“We all saw that,” said Scottish-born Holden, who will serve as color commentator for Friday’s FOX broadcast of the game. “And I think we all saw that as an opportunity.”
The idea that England would have no problems with the United States fueled the general outrage among American players at how they were viewed in Europe. On the eve of the game, after coach Bob Bradley showed the USA some final video clips, the conversation among the players turned to how they felt underappreciated by an England side they knew would be under massive pressure. England entered the 2010 World Cup with high expectations, with the media and public pressuring Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and company to win the nation’s first World Cup since 1966.
Not that outside noise bothered them in the early minutes as Gerrard gave England the lead in the fourth minute of the game. The USA, however, were no rags – they had beaten an incredible Spanish team and led 2-0 against Brazil in the Confederations Cup the summer before. They equalized late in the first half when goalkeeper Rob Green fumbled Dempsey’s shot from long range and actually hit the post in the second half on a chance from striker Jozy Altidore.
“Even when England scored, when Gerrard scored, I still felt like we were right in that game,” Holden said. “We were worth a point that day, if not three. And all of those storylines have benefited us in a lot of ways, I think. We were quite happy the conversation was about England and not us, to sort of fly in under the radar, a bit under pressure.”
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The USA didn’t win that game, but they ended up topping their group, finishing level with England on five points but securing a top spot ahead of them with a tie-break. It remains the only time a US men’s team has won their group at a World Cup. For Holden, when an England fan approaches him, it is “forever the right to brag”.
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 before them, USMNT stars like Pulisic, Adams and midfielder Weston McKennie have been given more and better opportunities on the European continent than any previous generation of American players.
Some of the stigma that ex-US players faced abroad has also faded. Brenden Aaronson, who plays with Adams at Premier League club Leeds United, said in Qatar last week he doesn’t feel he’s ever been treated any differently as a player in Europe than he was when he was in the US Dempsey, Edu and Holden players have all felt this shift as well.
Overall, however, Americans still have a long way to go. The United States ultimately failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. They’ve never done anything of serious standing on the world stage. They want that to change, and they want to change how they are perceived in the process.
That will be difficult to achieve on Friday. England is better than the USA in practically every position. One could seriously argue that there isn’t a single player in America’s 26-man squad that would make England’s World Cup squad. The style of play should suit USA better than they did in Monday’s draw against Wales, but style can only go so far when there’s a significant gap between talents. Another draw would be an excellent result for the Americans.
If they can snag a point, they would upset their never-ending struggle for respect and relevance at home and abroad. And if they could somehow pull off an upset win over England, well, as Pulisic said last week, that would change a lot of things.
“In the US it wasn’t top-flight sport or whatever, but we want to change the way the world sees American football, to be honest that’s one of our goals,” he said.
“I don’t think people necessarily do anything wrong. I think we have to prove ourselves, we may not have been at the level of some of these world powerhouses over the past few decades. We had good teams with a lot of heart, but I think we can take the next step. In my opinion, a lot can change with a successful World Cup.
(Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)