US-England could ‘change the way the world views American football’

DOHA, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter made the mission statement at his first-ever meeting with the US men’s national team. It’s been almost four years now, not long after an all-time low in American football. He stood in front of two dozen players, as their freshly minted USMNT coach, and told them that their North Star extended beyond wins and World Cups.

“What we want to do,” he said, “is change the way the world views American football.”

And on Friday, near the end of a four-year journey, they get the golden opportunity to do just that.

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

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

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

“That’s what we’re here for,” striker Christian Pulisic said last week. “Could be [soccer] hasn’t been the top sport, or whatever, in the United States. We want to change the way the world watches American football. … That is one of our goals.”

DOHA, QATAR - NOVEMBER 21: Christian Pulisic of USA and Timothy Weah of USA speak during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

On Friday against England on football’s biggest stage, the US men’s national team could change the story of American football. (Photo by Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

“It’s the biggest podium in football you can have”

Berhalter inherited a program that was still reeling after the colossal failure of the 2018 World Cup cycle, and almost immediately he gave direction to it. What he couldn’t change, however, were the ingrained beliefs, the stigmas surrounding sport in America.

They emerged shortly after the USMNT qualified for the 2022 World Cup, minutes and hours after being drawn into a group alongside England. The British tabloids cackled with delight.

“YANKEE DODDLE DANDY,” one yelled to celebrate the good fortune of England.

Others called it a “drawing dream” and a “easy looking draw.” They crowed that England had a “clear run through to the quarter-finals”. They wrote that “England’s hopes of World Cup glory had soared.”

The headlines reeked of a disrespect all too familiar to American coaches and players. Bob Bradley felt it acutely in 2016 when he became the first US-born manager of a Premier League club. He saw it by the ridicule and the mockery. Jesse Marsch, now the boss at Leeds United, has also spoken about it.

Berhalter felt it too, more from afar. And as the tabloids clucked, he saw an “opportunity” to do something about it. So did his players.

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

“And that’s the goal Gregg wanted to achieve when he took over,” confirmed McKennie. “That’s something that’s always repeated when we go into camp: ‘Change the way the world looks at American football.’ And there is no better place and no better time to do it.”

Changing the perception of American football worldwide starts at home

“It was great to get England into our group,” said Berhalter that day. “That’s a game that always gets a lot of attention because of England and their fans and their place in football.”

However, he and others also knew it would capture the attention of tens of millions of Americans — and that part of changing the way the world views American football is changing the way America views it.

“We want to make an impact – on ourselves and our team, of course, but ultimately on how football is viewed by the fans in the US,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “And then, eventually, globally,” he added. “You want to gain 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 USA sing the national anthem before the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar.  (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images)

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

American players are not ignorant of this. They know that football remains a second-class citizen in the American sports world for three years and ten months in every four-year cycle. They also know that there is a section of American football fans, sometimes mockingly referred to as ‘Eurosnobs’, who shun domestic football and only watch the Champions League or the English Premier League.

They know because in some cases they belonged to those people as children. They are the first generation of USMNT stars who grew up on Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. “Growing up I only watched the Premier League,” Adams said last week. “I think a lot of young Americans would probably say the same thing.”

Several of them, including Adams, are now playing in the Premier League. And as individuals, they have begun to change perceptions.

“If Christian does well at Dortmund and Chelsea, it helps other people say, ‘Hey, let’s look at Weston McKennie, or Adams, or [Brenden] Aaronson, or whoever,” former US Soccer President Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports this summer. It raises transfer ratings and cultivates acceptance, becoming “self-fulfilling,” Gulati added.

Those players have also started making explicit statements. When Aaronson broke out in Leeds in August, he boldly stated in a postgame interview, “It just shows people around the world that Americans can play football too.”

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

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

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *