Even with a 5:00 am PT kickoff time, Portland Timbers assistant coach Liam Ridgewell certainly wasn’t going to miss his home country’s opening game at the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

Was Ridgewell expecting England to rout Iran 6-2 to start Group B play? Perhaps not, even as France and Spain – other realistic champions from the Old Continent – have inflicted lopsided World Cup results in recent days.

“I'd normally be having a beer, but I thought 5 o'clock in the morning, that probably isn't going to work, I probably shouldn’t do that,” Ridgewell, who played extensively for English sides Aston Villa, Birmingham City and West Bromwich Albion, told MLSsoccer.com.

“So I just had my coffee. Before anyone asks, no I had nothing in it, just a normal coffee,” continued the MLS Cup 2015 champion with Portland. “But the celebrations were muted as my wife was sleeping and the kids were all sleeping. They were little fist pumps to myself and high-fiving myself, enjoying the game that way.”

USMNT dangers

Ridgewell is part of a small, but proud English expat community that’s made MLS their second home – in front offices, on the coaching touchlines and on the pitch – as the World Cup unfolds in the Middle East. And this year, Black Friday sees their adopted country pitted against their birthland, when the US men’s national team and England clash at Al Bayt Stadium in Qatar (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) for Group B’s marquee game.

While the Three Lions are carrying serious momentum, and could soon secure a knockout round place, these compatriots have a unified message after watching the USMNT control the first half on Monday but settle for a 1-1 draw against Wales. 

“They're an exciting team, the US. They have a lot of speed, a lot of power,” said Inter Miami CF left back Kieran Gibbs, a longtime Premier League player for Arsenal. “I was especially impressed with the middle of the park for USA against Wales. Most games are won in that area of the pitch and when you have teams with high energy that like to press and like to be aggressive, that becomes a tricky game for you. 

“I also think the US will play with a bit more freedom than a lot of teams in the World Cup because they're not expected to be world-beaters, as you say, and they’re young,” continued Gibbs, who’s played 10 times for England. “So that creates players who are out there with a lot of freedom, and a lot of times that works in your favor. Then you play without that added pressure and can just go out and express yourself.”

Liam Ridgewell
Liam Ridgewell played in two MLS Cups for the Portland Timbers. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

Lack of respect?

That’s manifested twice before in USA-England World Cup clashes: At Brazil 1950 the Yanks secured a 1-0 win, then at South Africa 2010 they settled for a 1-1 draw. The new kids on the block remain undefeated (1W-0L-1D) against their European counterparts on the sport’s biggest stage.

Despite that history, and MLS’s growing reputation, Minnesota United FC manager Adrian Heath feels the respect for American players isn’t fully where it should be.

“For me, the lack of respect at times for the American player is tough,” said Heath, a legendary player for Everton. “The number of times I've said to England clubs you should have a look at this guy and they shrug their shoulders and say I'm not sure about him. Then they pick up and go and start doing really, really well and suddenly they've got their interest. It's the same boy, not much has changed. But on the backs of these players coming out of MLS, they're quality.”

Added Heath, who has coached in the US since 2008: “The perception has slowly changed, to be fair. It's too slow for my liking, but it's certainly changing. I know from speaking to a lot of coaches and friends back home, they're certainly keen to take the MLS and the US player, North American player with a lot more interest than before."

Bradley Wright-Phillips, sixth all-time in MLS goals scored (117), raised a similar point when commenting on American players’ growing reputation. It perhaps surfaces in how six USMNT players at the World Cup play in the EPL, most notably Chelsea attacker Christian Pulisic. MLS homegrown products like Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson are thriving at Leeds United, too.

“I'm on record in a lot of interviews, saying how much that used to frustrate me and annoy me, the lack of respect from back home,” said Wright-Phillips, who now works in the New York Red Bulls’ front office after starring for the club during the 2010s. “But I can't really throw shade on it because back when I was in England, American soccer wasn't on my radar, I didn't care, I probably didn't respect it also.

“I think it's now a case of people seeing more games, players like Tyler, Aaronson, Pulisic, all these guys in the Premier League doing well, these things are important. Jesse [Marsch] doing well too at Leeds. It helps them recognize these guys know what they're doing. They can play, they can coach.”

Bradley Wright-Phillips is the New York Red Bulls' all-time leading scorer. (Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Ridgewell observed a similar point, with 18 players on the USMNT’s World Cup roster either in MLS past or present – via academies or first teams.

“Growing up, I honestly don't think people knew there were football leagues in America,” Ridgewell said. “They knew people played football, but I don't think people thought there was an established league, a competitive one.

“So it's brilliant how that's grown and it's all credit to the people that put the hard work in at the ground roots to bring things to where it is now. Seeing USA in the World Cup, it's a credit to many people behind the scenes in this league.”

Avoid complacency

But the natural tensions of England vs. USA will always linger, especially under the World Cup’s bright lights. And this matchup always carries some big brother vs. little brother elements, soccer vs. football debates, conversations of how arguably the world’s top league (EPL) compares to an up-and-coming one (MLS). Plus, the countries’ interwoven histories span from the Revolutionary War to their lasting special relationship in modern geopolitics.

While the Three Lions are clear favorites, Heath said they must avoid complacency.

“I've known Gareth Southgate and I've known Steve Holland for probably 25, 30 years – he's Gareth's assistant, going back to the days at Crewe Alexandra when he started there and my boy was there, Harrison. I've known him for a long time. He's a really smart football guy,” Heath said of England’s coaching staff.

“They will not be underestimating the American team, I can assure you. The press may be and people are a little bit more ignorant and don’t see it regularly, but I'm sure knowing Gareth and knowing Steve well, they will have done the necessary homework. It's a huge game. It has a huge impact on the group for both teams for different reasons.”

Kieran Gibbs
Kieran Gibbs last played for England in 2015. (Sam Navarro-USA TODAY Sports)

The world’s No. 5-ranked team entered the World Cup on a six-game winless run, and recent troubles haven’t entirely evaporated even as youngsters like Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka and Borussia Dortmund midfielder Jude Bellingham show their quality. England have reason to feel confident, but Gibbs cautioned they shouldn’t get too far ahead of themselves.

“Whenever you step on the football pitch, especially on an international stage, the last thing you can be is complacent,” said Gibbs, who joined Miami in March 2021. “Because at the end of the day, you’re still playing against players that are the best of their nation. You always have to be careful. 

“I think there may have been an element of that in the 2010 US game, but I don't think that will come for this group of players purely because you've got the young guys who want to prove themselves on the international stage.”

Points needed

Should the US deliver another shock result, they’ll likely still need a point from their Group B-closing Iran (Nov. 29) match. On the England side, there’s urgency as well before wrapping against Wales next Tuesday.

The stakes are high, both in friendly banter and the pressure that always follows the Three Lions.

“There'll be some chatter after the game, I can guarantee that,” joked Gibbs, whose Miami teammate DeAndre Yedlin is on the US squad. “You don't want to tempt fate with it on your part beforehand. I'll definitely be waiting until after for any of that.”

Wright-Phillips laughed about a similar dynamic, playing with USMNTers Adams and center back Aaron Long at the Red Bulls.

“Listen man, I want the USA to do well in the World Cup, I want them to get out of the group,” Wright-Phillips said. “They can't win the England game though. I'm here in America, don't have too many English people here to back me up. So this game has to go well for us.”