USA-England can ‘change the way the world views American football’

DOHA, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter released the mission statement in his first meeting with the United States men’s national team. It’s been nearly four years, not long after American soccer’s nadir. He stood in front of two dozen players, like their newly minted USMNT coach, and told them their lodestar extended beyond victories and world cups.

“What we’re trying to do,” he said, “is change the way the world sees American soccer.”

And on Friday, near the end of a four-year journey, they will have the golden opportunity to do so.

They will take to sport’s biggest stage, at the World Cup, in prime time in Europe, to meet England, the self-proclaimed inventors of football. They will duel with players from the league that the whole world watches. They will discard respect from a country whose media drives global narratives around gaming.

They will play 90 minutes which, for better or for worse, rightly or wrongly, will validate or invalidate their progress in the eyes of billions of people.

And they welcome this burden. They cherish the responsibility. They know this is their chance to alter perceptions forever.

“That’s what we’re here to do,” striker Christian Pulisic said last week. “Perhaps [soccer] it hasn’t been the top sport, or anything, in the United States. We want to change the way the world views American soccer. … This is one of our goals.

Friday against England on soccer’s biggest stage, the United States men’s national team may change the narrative on American soccer. (Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

“It’s the biggest football stage you can have”

Berhalter inherited a program still reeling from the colossal failure of the 2018 Worlds cycle and, almost immediately, gave it direction. What couldn’t change, however, were the deep-rooted beliefs, the stigmas around sport in America.

They emerged soon after the USMNT qualified for the 2022 World Cup, minutes and hours after being placed in a group alongside England. The British tabloids cackled with glee.

“YANKE DODDLE DANDY”, one yelled to celebrate England’s fortune.

Others called it “dream draw” it’s a “simple looking design.” They sang that England had “a clear cut through to the quarter-finals”. They wrote that “England’s hopes for World Cup glory have soared”.

The titles reeked of a disrespect all too familiar to American coaches and players. Bob Bradley felt this deeply in 2016 when he became the first US-born manager of a Premier League club. He saw it in the grins and giggles. Jesse Marsch, now boss of Leeds United, also spoke about it.

Even Berhalter sensed it, from a distance. And as the tabloids cackled, he saw an “opportunity” to do something about it. So did the players of him.

“I think there are many benefits to playing a match against England,” midfielder Weston McKennie said at the time. “It is the biggest football stadium you can have. To face them in the World Cup and to play against players that people know… you can take a step forward in the growth of your player, and make yourself known more, and also just make the team more respected, more watched, more believed.

“And that’s the goal Gregg set out to achieve when he took over,” confirmed McKennie. “It’s something we always say every time we go to the field: ‘Change the way the world sees American soccer.’ And there’s no better place and no better time to do it.

Changing the perception of US soccer globally starts at home

“It was great to have England in our group,” said Berhalter that day. “It’s a game that always attracts a lot of attention, thanks to England, their supporters and their established place in football.”

He and others also knew, though, that it would hold the attention of tens of millions of Americans — and that part of changing how the world sees American soccer is changing how America sees it.

“We want to make an impact, obviously on ourselves and our team, but ultimately on how soccer is viewed by fans in the United States,” said midfielder Tyler Adams. “And then ultimately globally,” he added. “You want to earn the respect of some of the best footballing nations in the world.” But the battle begins, or perhaps ends, at home.

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 21: Josh Sargent, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson of United States sing the national anthem before the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup Group B match between United States and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

Josh Sargent, Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson of United States sing the national anthem before the Qatar 2022 FIFA World Cup Group B match between United States and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

US players are not ignoring this. They know that soccer, for three years and 10 months out of every four-year cycle, remains a second-class citizen on the American sports scene. They also know that there is a segment of American soccer fans, sometimes derisively referred to as “Eurosnobs,” who shun domestic soccer and only watch the Champions League or English Premier League.

They know this because, in some cases, they were among those people as children. I am the first generation of USMNT stars raised on the Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. “Growing up, all I saw was the Premier League,” Adams said last week. “I think a lot of young Americans would probably say the same.”

Many of them, including Adams, now play in the Premier League. And as individuals, perceptions have begun to change.

“When Christian does well at Dortmund and Chelsea, it helps others say, ‘Hey, let’s check out Weston McKennie, or Adams, or [Brenden] Aaronson, or whoever that might be,” former US soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports this summer. Raise transfer ratings and cultivate acceptance, and it becomes “self-fulfilling,” he added. Gulati.

Those players have also started making explicit statements. When Aaronson burst out at Leeds in August, he boldly stated in a post-match interview: “This is just to show people all over the world that Americans can play football too.”

But they know, as a collective, that they are not fully respected here at the World Cup, or even in the United States, by the masses.

They are seen by some as a sleeping giant in the sport, but with an emphasis on to sleep.

Friday, with the world watching, they can wake up.

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