However, soccer ties between the countries have strengthened, due to exposure to the English game in the United States, the desire of many American players to pursue careers in England, and a greater respect in England for how US soccer has grown.
Along with that dynamic at work comes Friday’s World Cup clash in Beit, Qatar, between an English rival firing on all cylinders and a USA team looking to join a giant killer clan in this unlikely tournament.
Bursting with their talents, the Three Lions set their sights on the first world championship since 1966. The United States, who are learning and growing, have the modest goal of reaching the knockout stage after failing to qualify for the tournament four years ago.
They’ve only met twice before at the World Cup, and the Americans are still undefeated (1950 in Brazil, 2010 draw in South Africa). A win or a draw would not only bolster the USA’s immediate case, but also fuel larger ambitions to become a soccer powerhouse in the men’s game. (The women’s program is long overdue.)
“It’s obviously a huge opportunity to accelerate the impact that we can have,” captain Tyler Adams said. “These are games where it’s a high-pressure, privileged moment to go out against some of these guys. … It means a lot to the team because we’ve been trying to develop this business for the last three years and we’re moving in the right direction.”
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The ties between the programs begin with coaches Gregg Berhalter and England’s Gareth Southgate, who have become good friends over the years. Both took over teams in need of direction, Berhalter after the 2018 qualifying fiasco and Southgate after subpar performances at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship.
Their teams haven’t had much contact since being grouped in the World Cup draw.
“I’ve got him on WhatsApp but I haven’t seen the blue tick,” Berhalter joked on Thursday, indicating Southgate had read the message. “We kind of took a break. We will restore our relations after tomorrow.”
Southgate said: “I have enjoyed my association with Greg over the last few years. I learned a lot from him and it was really interesting to see the progress of the team under his leadership.”
Almost half of the USA’s 26-man roster has English connections. Sons of American fathers, defenders Antonee Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers were born and raised in England. Born in New York, midfielder Yunus Musa lived there from the ages of 9-16, went through Arsenal’s academy and played for England’s youth national teams.
Losing Musa stung England. “Obviously he took one of ours, we weren’t too happy about that,” Southgate said. “Fair game.”
Musah, 19, said: “I’m not quite sure how to feel [Friday]. It’s definitely a special game because I’ve played for both sides.”
“My family half want us to win and half want England to win,” Carter-Vickers, 24, said.
The 20-year-old striker Gio Reyna was born in Sunderland, England, while his father, former USA captain Claudio, was in the midst of his European career.
Adams, goalkeeper Matt Turner, forward Brenden Aaronson, defender Tim Ream and forwards Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic are all at English clubs. Striker Jordan Morris spent time on loan at Welsh side Swansea City in the English second-tier Championship and midfielder Luca de la Torre began his career at London-based Fulham.
Berhalter, a former defender, played for London’s Crystal Palace for one season.
Turner said that playing in the Premier League at Arsenal “is the game I grew up watching and I’ve experienced it myself”. “It was an eye-opening experience to see it from both sides.”
Three of Turner’s Arsenal teammates have been named in England’s World Cup squad: goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, defender Ben White and forward Bukayo Saka. “Friends off the field,” Turner said, “and then when you get on the field, you’re in full focus for 90 minutes.”
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As a young player, Adams idolized Arsenal star Thierry Henry – he became Henry’s teammate with the New York Red Bulls – and he was drawn to the Premier League. Adams moved to Leeds United from German club RB Leipzig this summer. His coach, Jesse Marsh, is American, as is his teammate, Aaronson.
“I remember telling my mum when I was young that I wanted to play for England,” Adams, 23, said. “There is something special about the Premier League – always has been and I think always will be.”
Berhalter, Turner and Adams noted the popularity of the Premier League in the United States thanks to NBC Sports’ extensive coverage.
“When you wake up to watch the Premier League and it seems like there’s a team that everybody in America is rooting for,” Berhalter said. “It’s an incredible league. We are really proud that our players are playing in this league.”
Southgate said: “We know a lot [U.S.] players in our league and we know their quality and athleticism.”
With so many Americans playing in England, the fear of facing the Three Lions was perhaps eased. With the exception of German midfielder Jude Billingham, every member of the England squad is working for a Premier League club.
“There are a lot of things out there that scare me other than spiders,” Adams said with a laugh during a news conference at the Qatar National Convention Center, one floor below a large spider sculpture.
“So it’s good for me to have the opportunity to play against all these great players, but we also want to show what we’re capable of and that US soccer is growing and developing the right way.”
The British also came from the state. Wayne Rooney starred for DC United in 2018 and 2019 and currently manages the club.
England, aware of the weight of expectations, look to the World Cup spectacularly
When asked if England’s all-time leading goalscorer had split allegiances at the end of this season, he said: “No. I am English. Of course, I want England to win.”
But he joked that if the Three Lions stumble, “I’ll have to call it football in all the next games. [MLS] season.”
The world championship held in Qatar
Live updates: The final eight teams to make their debuts in Qatar play Thursday in Group G and H games. Stay tuned for the latest news, updates and highlights.
USMNT: Back at the World Cup, the young Americans were content with a 1-1 draw with Wales in their opening Group B game. The U.S. men’s national team will face a higher task against Group B favorite England, who defeated Iran 6-2 on Friday.
Qatar dispute: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusion, said they were not allowed into World Cup stadiums and confronted members of the public to remove the emblem.
Group guide: The U.S. men’s national soccer team, led by coach Greg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement from a disastrous and underwhelming 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams in each group stack up.