RATTLING ENGLAND WAS FUN, BUT IT’S TIME TO TOPPLE A SUPERPOWER
A 0-0 tie is encouraging, but to earn a skeptical country’s affection, the Americans must beat a behemoth such as England in an ongoing mission to crack the world football ("soc-cer!") elite
Progress requires patience, we’ve been told, ad nauseam. But how long is the United States supposed to wait, after countless years of pranks and teases and fits and starts, for its soccer initiative to finally burgeon? It was cool to watch a youthful team fluster a traditional behemoth, England, and do so with enough panache and poise that U.S. fans in Qatar peppered the British snobs with trash talk.
“It’s called soc-cer! It’s called soc-cer!” they chanted in Al Bayt Stadium, taking verbal ownership with a bastardized description of what the rest of the planet calls football.
Still, celebrating a 0-0 tie is not the American way. Savoring a blast off the crossbar, from the thunder foot of Christian Pulisic, is not the takeaway that unites a socially divided country that could use a group toast about now. It was a sufficient step forward, four years after failing to qualify for the World Cup, and there is reason to think the USMNT will slip past Iran on Tuesday and reach the knockout round. This happens to be a tournament, though, where the unexpected no longer is shocking. Saudi Arabia declared a national holiday after beating Argentina. In Tokyo, fans flooded Shibuya Crossing after Japan upset Germany.
So why would we jam our streets, impressive as the U.S. performance was, when Friday felt like a missed opportunity? When an uninspired, tired English side was booed by a disgusted fan base? Wasn’t this more about the Three Lions sucking wind? They were ripe for the taking, which would have constituted the biggest American soccer moment in eons and forged hope that a legitimate breakthrough is forthcoming in our exhausting crusade to crash the global elite. The scoreless result means the mission is far from finished, and the best news afterward was that the Americans happen to agree. They don’t want to settle. They want more, too, while realizing the football world won’t adjust a middling perception of them until a defining, monstrous, historic victory is in the books.
“We dominated the game. We had the more clear-cut chances. But it sucks we couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net,” said U.S. midfielder Weston McKennie, he of the red, white and blue hair.
“Regarding changing the way the world views American soccer, we’re chipping away at it, and you need games like tonight to be able to do that,” said Gregg Berhalter, coach and architect of the current U.S. reboot. “I talked before the World Cup about how seriously this team and this staff is taking the responsibility to gain momentum in this sport in America. We want to capture the public’s attention. We want to perform at a high level. We want to give them something to be proud of, but there has to be more to come. Otherwise, it’s hard for people to get an assessment. We’re not done. Our focus is to keep going, and hopefully by the end of the tournament, we give people something to talk about.”
Said captain Tyler Adams: “England are still a big team at the end of the day, but the intimidation factor? I wouldn’t say there’s many things out there that intimidate me, other than spiders.”
No doubt this was a fun experience, in and of itself. It’s always a hoot when a pompous nation that views the national team as an extension of The Crown is kicked in the arse with a reminder — England hasn’t won a World Cup since 1966. Given the number of Stateside products playing these days in the English Premier League, including Pulisic and stellar goaltender Matt Turner, there was no awe factor. The Americans were the better and more energized team, despite the respective pedigrees, and the opponents were huffing, puffing and looking tentative and gimpy, from Harry Kane up front to Harry Maguire on the back line. Another Harry, a defrocked royal, couldn’t have been happy about what he was seeing.
“It showed we can go toe to toe with some of the best teams in the world,” U.S. midfielder Brenden Aaronson said. “I think it shows we’re going to get respect out of this game.”
“There’s a lot of people that obviously thought we were going to get blown out,” said McKennie, who was brilliant in controlling the game with fellow midfielders. “But we didn’t feel like an underdog at all, because we know our capability, we know what we can do, we know what talent and fight and spirit we have. I think we’re not really afraid of playing against top-tier teams, and I think it works in our favor if people think that we’re underdogs going into games because then they might take us lightly or something. I think we surprise them every time.”
Alas, the Americans didn’t seize the chance. Winning the eye test, or the corner-kicks test, didn’t translate to a victory that would make a nation fully believe in its soccer future after so many false forays. Truth is, a loss to Iran sends the U.S. home, resetting the clock to zero. Just four days earlier, a 1-0 lead was erased by an underwhelming Wales side. Which U.S. team shows up in the defining game of 2022? “Overall, I’m pleased with the performance of the group, and most importantly, the belief of the group, because that never wavered,” Berhalter said. “In the end, it sets up our first knockout game. We win, or we’re out of the World Cup. That’s going to be the focus for us. But most importantly, we must understand the intensity Iran is going to bring. We’ll have to be up for it if we want a chance to advance.”
A “chance to advance” isn’t a rally cry America will embrace. It’s time to topple a superpower. Oh, imagine the love for Pulisic if he’d converted in the 33rd minute, rather than meeting metal. Casual sports fans have heard his name for years, since he emerged from Pennsylvania as America’s most acclaimed soccer product. He was worthy of a $74 million investment by Chelsea, via Borussia Dortmund, but while contributing to a Champions League title last year, he has been subjected to anti-American bias by the team’s coaches and fans. Had he scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory? The Volkswagen ad that shows him talking to a shrink about the pressures he faces — a surprising commercial project for a confessed introvert who has acknowledged deep bouts with depression — would have been replaced by several ads, including one of him flipping off Stamford Bridge.
Instead, he’ll have to settle for the post-tie headline in a British tabloid, The Sun: “Yawn in the USA.”
“I guess that’s a positive sign,” Pulisic said of not losing. “Back home watching, I hope we made a lot of people proud.”
Proud isn’t the word. In five World Cups dating back to 2006, the U.S. has played 10 games against European teams and hasn’t won once, losing five times and tying the rest. “We haven’t achieved anything as a group on the world stage,” Berhalter said. “We’re just not there yet.”
“Maybe it hasn't been the top sport or whatever back in the States,” Pulisic said before the tournament. “We want to change the way that the world sees us, sees American soccer to be honest, that's one of our goals. I don't think it's necessarily what they get wrong (about U.S. soccer). I think we have to prove ourselves. We haven’t been maybe at the level of some of these world powerhouses in recent decades, but we’ve had good teams with a lot of heart. I think we can take it to the next step with a successful World Cup. I think that can change a lot of things.”
A nation continues to twiddle its thumbs, tap its fingers and wait.
But now — at least, at last — America is watching with rapt attention.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.