And yet the soccer ties between the countries have strengthened, intrinsically connected by exposure to the English game in the United States, the desire of many American players to plot careers in England and a greater respect in England for how U.S. soccer has grown.
With these dynamics at work, along comes a World Cup collision Friday in Bayt, Qatar, between an English contender firing on all cylinders and a boyish U.S. squad seeking to join the clan of giant killers at this unpredictable tournament.
Bursting with talent, the Three Lions have their eye on their first world championship since 1966. Learning and evolving, the United States has the modest goal of advancing to the knockout stage after failing to qualify for the tournament four years ago.
They’ve clashed in the World Cup just twice previously, and the Americans have yet to lose (a 1950 upset in Brazil and a 2010 draw in South Africa). A victory or draw would not only fuel the immediate U.S. cause but boost larger ambitions of becoming a formidable soccer country in the men’s game. (The women’s program arrived long ago.)
“It’s obviously a huge opportunity to fast-track the impact that we can have,” captain Tyler Adams said. “These are the games where it’s a high-pressure, privileged moment to step on the field against some of these guys. … It means a lot to the team because we’ve been trying to progress this thing along for the past three years and we’ve been moving in the right direction.”
The ties between the programs start with the 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 showings at the 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship.
After their teams were grouped together at the World Cup draw, they have not had much contact.
“I have WhatsApp’ed him, but I haven’t seen the blue check mark” showing Southgate has read the message, Berhalter joked Thursday. “We kind of took a hiatus. We will pick up our relationship after tomorrow.”
Said Southgate: “I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Greg over the last few years. I’ve learned a lot from him, and it’s been really interesting to see the team progress under his leadership.”
Almost half the 26-man U.S. roster has English ties. Sons of American fathers, defenders Antonee Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers were born and raised in England. New York-born midfielder Yunus Musah lived there from age 9 to 16, rose through Arsenal’s academy and played for English youth national teams.
Losing Musah stung England. “Obviously took one of ours, which we weren’t very happy about,” Southgate said. “Fair play.”
Musah, 19, said: “I’m not quite sure how I will feel [Friday]. It’s a special game, for sure, because I’ve played for both sides.”
Carter-Vickers, 24, said, “My family, half want us to win and half want England to win.”
Attacker Gio Reyna, 20, was born in Sunderland, England, while his father, Claudio, the former U.S. captain, was in the middle of his European career.
Adams, goalkeeper Matt Turner, attacker Brenden Aaronson, defender Tim Ream and forwards Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic are employed by English clubs. Forward Jordan Morris spent time on loan to Welsh side Swansea City in the second-tier English Championship, and midfielder Luca de la Torre launched his career with London-based Fulham.
Berhalter, a former defender, played one season for London’s Crystal Palace.
The Premier League is “the game I grew up watching, and I’ve experienced it firsthand” playing for Arsenal, Turner said. “It was an eye-opening experience seeing it from both sides.”
Three of Turner’s Arsenal teammates were selected to the English 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 pitch, it’s full focus for 90 minutes.”
As a youth 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. This summer, Adams joined Leeds United from Germany’s RB Leipzig. His coach, Jesse Marsch, is American, as is teammate Aaronson.
“I remember telling my mom at a young age that I wanted to play in England,” said Adams, 23. “There’s something special about the Premier League — always has been, and I think there always will be.”
Berhalter, Turner and Adams cited the popularity of the Premier League in the United States, thanks to NBC Sports’ extensive coverage.
“Waking up to watch the Premier League, and everyone in America seems to have a team they support,” Berhalter said. “It’s an incredible league. We’re really proud to have our players playing in that league.”
Southgate said, “We know a lot of the [U.S.] players from our league, and we know the quality they have and the athleticism they have.”
With so many Americans playing in England, the awe of facing the Three Lions is perhaps softened. Every member of England’s squad, except German-based midfielder Jude Billingham, is employed by a Premier League club.
“I wouldn’t say there’s many things out there that intimidate me, other than spiders,” Adams said to laughter during a news conference at Qatar National Convention Center, one floor below an enormous sculpture of a spider.
“So it’s fine for me to have the opportunity to play against all these big players, but we also want to show that what we’re capable of and that U.S. soccer is growing and developing in the right way.”
Englishmen have come stateside, as well. Wayne Rooney starred at D.C. United in 2018 and 2019 and now coaches the club.
Asked late this season if he had split loyalties, the English national team’s all-time leading scorer said: “No. I’m English. I want England to win, of course.”
But he joked that if the Three Lions stumble, “I have got to call it soccer for the whole of next [MLS] season.”
World Cup in Qatar
USMNT: In their return to the World Cup, the young Americans settled for a 1-1 draw against Wales in their Group B opener. The U.S. men’s national team will face a taller task Friday against Group B favorite England, which demolished Iran, 6-2, earlier Monday.
Qatar controversy: Soccer fans wearing the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, have said they were refused entry into World Cup stadiums and confronted by members of the public to remove the emblem.
Groups guide: The U.S. men’s national soccer team, led by Coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement from its disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 campaign. Here’s a close look at how all of the teams in each group stack up.