It may not be possible for countries as large, diverse, and divided as the United States to have a definite national character. It’s a very vague concept, something too narrow to unstoppable for such a large and diverse group of people.
However, it cannot be denied that some Americans are accustomed to moving through the world in a certain way. Some see them as fearless, others see them as arrogant, but on the broadest level, they are used to setting the cultural, political and economic agenda in most places on the planet.
This has never been the case in men’s football. Outside of select (especially Latino) immigrant communities, the game of men in the shadows exists in the United States, and is more popular today than ever, but it remains niche, engaged in a never-ending battle for hearts and minds both at home and abroad. In a world where Americans are almost always the favorites, American men have always been a global underdog.
US National Team coach Greg Berhalter, captain Tyler Adams, and star striker Christian Pulisic have spoken repeatedly over the past few months about their mission to change the way the world looks at American football. They’ll have no better chance of doing so than on Friday, when the United States will take on fan favorites England in a massive World Cup match in Qatar.
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“I think it’s obviously a huge opportunity to quickly track the impact that can happen,” Adams said Thursday. “When you get a score in a game like this, people start to respect Americans a little bit more.”
Our two countries’ common language, special political relationship, and England’s status as one of the most important soccer nations in the world means that the European nation holds an important place in the American soccer psyche. We consume their league, they are taught by their coaches at nearly every level from grassroots upwards and it seems we have long since given extra importance to anyone in the game who speaks with a British accent.
The importance we place on England is less out of an immediate inferiority complex than a general insecurity about our place in the game. Be it domestic or international, all involved in sports have experienced the occasional disrespect that comes with playing, watching, or being a fan of men’s soccer in America. For children, it might be in the form of schoolyard taunts. For fans, it may be about the poor public perception of MLS or the men’s national team. For professional players and coaches, they were historically meant to be seen as less than their counterparts from other countries, regardless of their actual abilities.
For the most part, this is not a pleasant experience. We want to belong. We want to be seen as real players. Getting England’s seal of approval is by no means necessary, but it will no doubt feel good to 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 when he was growing up in Nacogdoches, Texas, where he learned the game primarily by playing in the town’s predominantly Latino men’s league. Despite his relatively anonymous beginnings, he worked his way up to the pros, first in MLS, and then in Europe, playing stellar form with Fulham in the Premier League and earning a huge move to Tottenham before returning to the United States to finish the game. His career is with Seattle Sounders. Along the way, he played in three World Cups and tied the record for most goals for the men’s national team.
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With all his talent and success, Dempsey feels like he never really got his due in Europe. He certainly wasn’t a huge star among the common people back home. He had to earn the respect he earned – over and over again.
“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 five or six years ago. It doesn’t matter whether players like Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Stuart Holden or, in the eras before them, Claudio Reyna and Tab Ramos are as technically adept and tactically sound as all but their all-time best peers. As Americans, people from other countries have often written them off as studious and hardworking.
This kind of attitude has permeated the way people think about the national team. There is perhaps no better example of this refusal than in preparation for the last time the United States and England met for the Men’s World Cup in their opening group stage match in South Africa in 2010.
The morning after the two countries came together in December 2009, English newspaper The Sun splashed the word “EASY” across its back pages. The title was an abbreviation for the four teams that were placed in Group C: England, Algeria, Slovenia, and Yank. The bossy was even more arrogant: “USA, Algeria and Slovenia: the best English band since the Beatles.”
Dempsey, Holden and fellow American international Maurice Edu were all playing in the UK at the time, Dempsey in the midst of his career at Fulham, Holden at Bolton and Edu at Scottish club Rangers. Each of them clearly remembered this address.
“I definitely remember seeing those headlines, being there and bantering with your teammates, being arrogant,” said Ido. “It was arrogance. Blatantly, that’s what it was. But that’s the world we live in, in terms of how it viewed us from a global point of view.”
“We’ve all seen it,” said Scottish-born Holden, who will serve as color commentator for FOX’s broadcast of the match on Friday. “And I think we all saw that as an opportunity.”
The notion that England would have no problems doing business with the United States added to the general resentment of the American players about the way they were viewed in Europe. The night before the game, after coach Bob Bradley showed the USA a few final videos, conversation among the players turned to their feeling that they had been underestimated by an England team they knew would be under tremendous pressure. England entered the 2010 World Cup with high expectations, with the media and public pressuring Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard & Co to win their first World Cup since 1966.
Not that the outside commotion bothered them in the opening minutes, as Gerrard gave England the lead in the fourth minute of that match. But the United States was no slouch, beating out a great Spain team and taking a 2-0 lead against Brazil in the Confederations Cup last summer. They got the equalizer at the end of the first half when Dempsey’s shot from range was missed by goalkeeper Rob Green, who then hit the post through striker Jozy Altidore with 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 that game,” Holden said. “We deserved a point that day, if not three. And all these storylines, I think, favored us in many ways. We were very happy that it was about England and not us, sort of flying under the radar, with a little bit of low pressure.”
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The USA did not win that match, but they ended up top of the group, tied with England on five points but taking the lead against them via tiebreaker. This remains the only time the US men’s team has won its World Cup group. For Holden, it’s “forever bragging rights” when an English fan confronts 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 before them, USMNT stars like Pulisic, Adams, and quarterback Weston McKennie were given better European opportunities than any previous generation of American players.
The stigma former American players faced abroad has evaporated a bit, too. Brendan Aronson, who plays with Adams at Premier League club Leeds United, said in Qatar last week that he did not feel he was treated any differently as a player in Europe than when he played in the US for Dempsey, Edu and Holden. They all felt this shift, too.
Collectively, though, Americans still have a long way to go. The United States failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, after all. They’ve never done anything seriously reputable on the world stage. They want to change that, and they want to change their perception in the process.
It will be difficult to achieve that on Friday. England is better than the USA basically in every position. One could make a serious argument that there is not a single player in the 26-man US squad who would be on England’s World Cup squad. The style of the game should suit the United States better than the style of play in Monday’s tie against Wales, but style can only go so far when there is a great disparity in talent. Another draw that will be an excellent result for the Americans.
If they can get a point, they will make an impact in their never-ending battle for respect and relevance, both at home and abroad. And if they can somehow pull off a shock win over England, well, as Pulisic said last week, that would change a lot of things.
“It wasn’t the number one sport or anything else in the United States, but we want to change the way the world sees American football, frankly, that’s one of our goals,” he said.
I don’t think people necessarily got anything wrong. I think we have to prove ourselves, maybe we are not on the level of some of these world powers in recent decades. We have good teams and we have a lot of heart in us, but I think we can go to the next step. With the success of the World Cup, I think this can change a lot of things.
(Photo: VINCENZO PINTO/AFP via Getty Images)