Friday’s Group B fixture with England (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) is not just a duel with one of the tournament’s favorites, and massively important in points terms for the US men’s national team, who can markedly boost their prospects of qualification for the knockout stages with a win or draw.
It’s also a face-off against one of the most powerful influences in US footballing culture.
Premier League passion
The nation that long ago counted the US as one more territory in its global empire and still maintains close political and economic ties dubbed “The Special Relationship” has also been something of a colonizer in the soccer sense. Millions of North Americans have embraced its top flight; conversely, myriad coaches and players have headed west across the Atlantic to proselytize for the beautiful game over the decades.
“In America, you see a lot of young players tuning into a lot of the Premier League games. They’re on in the mornings, they’re easy to tune into,” explained USMNT captain and Leeds United standout Tyler Adams to a room full of reporters from around the world in Thursday’s matchday-1 press conference. “You saw a lot of quality players on the pitch at the same time, no matter which team was playing in the Premier League.
“So for me, it was always a dream of mine. I remember telling my mom at a young age that I wanted to play in England. The culture is not too far off of what America has to offer, so definitely that transition has been obviously a lot easier than playing in Germany [at RB Leipzig]. But there's something special about the Premier League. Always has been and I think there always will be.”
For Adams, his club and country teammate Brenden Aaronson and the six other members of this USMNT group who play their club soccer in England – you can lump head coach Gregg Berhalter in there too, considering he spent a season with Crystal Palace at the turn of the century during his own playing days – it’s the ultimate crucible.
Simultaneously the sport’s ancestral home and most intensely-marketed product, it offers an experience like few others, one that is more accessible Stateside than ever.
“It's incredible. I remember when I was [playing] in Holland, getting home from my games on Saturday and watching the Match of the Day on BBC, and that was the only real highlights you got,” said Berhalter.
“Now, every Saturday morning in America, waking up to watch the Premier League and seeing all the fan festivals they’re having – just, everyone now in America seems to have a team that they support. It’s an incredible league, we're really proud to have our players playing in that league. And to me, it's similar to the NFL in terms of how dominant it is and how commercial-orientated it is.”
Former New England Revolution goalkeeper Matt Turner has been living that in real time since his $6 million summer transfer to Arsenal, the club he’d watched and cheered since adolescence.
“There's definitely a tremendous respect from the people of America of English soccer – English football,” he said on Wednesday, catching himself almost in deference to the British reporters in the media center at the USMNT’s World Cup training base at Al-Gharafa SC.
Nothing comes EASY
That respect doesn’t always run in both directions. Back in December 2009, The Sun newspaper reacted gleefully to the 2010 World Cup draw that placed England in a group alongside Algeria, Slovenia and the Yanks with a blaring headline that turned the quartet into an acronym: “EASY.”
In England, it was just another tabloid edition among the many churned out in high volume by that nation’s media. It hit differently across the pond, providing bulletin-board material for Bob Bradley’s USMNT and their fast-growing fanbase ahead of their surprise first-place finish in Group C in South Africa, due in no small part to the 1-1 draw they scratched out against England via a Rob Green goalkeeping howler on a Clint Dempsey shot.
On Thursday, MLSsoccer.com asked England manager Gareth Southgate about that headline and his nation’s general outlook towards US soccer.
“Have we ever beaten the States in a major tournament?” he asked, a nod to the countries’ other World Cup meeting, the Yanks’ historic shock win over the Three Lions way back in Brazil 1950. “No, I didn't think so. So tomorrow, we have to try to make history, number one. We're good at that, we're good at talking highly of ourselves as a nation, and on the basis of very little evidence. So what we've got to do is perform on the field. And we know that we'll play a highly motivated [US] team, perhaps even more motivated because of some of those types of headlines.
“But we've got huge respect for our opponent. We know a lot of the players from our league, and we know the quality that they have and the athleticism that they have. So we've got to be at our best.”
The moment of truth
The USMNT know that applies to them as well, probably even more so, considering England’s impressive 6-2 demolition of Iran in their first game in Qatar. And the stacked array of talent like Harry Kane – who Southgate effectively confirmed will start this game after an ankle scare turned out to be a minor issue – Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling that’s led Berhalter to dub them “a billion-dollar squad” more than once in the leadup to this game.
There’s also an extra edge for the many Yanks with close ties to the country, starting with dual-nationals Cameron Carter-Vickers, Antonee “Jedi” Robinson and Yunus Musah, the latter a rare case of a dual-eligible who spurned England in favor of another national team, which Southgate made a rueful point of mentioning indirectly on Thursday.
Adams says his team is ready to trade punches with the giant.
“England’s still a big team at the end of the day,” he said. “But we also want to show them what we're capable of and that US soccer is growing and developing in the right way.”