USMNT meets England at the World Cup

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RAYYAN, Qatar – Their landmasses are separated by high seas and their stature in soccer – er, soccer – by similarly great distances. It’s England’s national pastime – royal spectators aside, of course – and a casual retreat for most Americans.

Some Premier League clubs trace their history back to the 19th century; MLS dates back to 1996. The English invented the modern game; Americans tinkered with the rules before adopting them.

And yet, footballing ties between the countries have strengthened, inextricably linked to the encounter with English football in the United States, the desire of many American players to pursue careers in England, and a greater respect in England for the growth of the US Soccer.

With that momentum at work, Friday’s World Cup clash ensues in Bayt, Qatar, between an England challenger who’s firing on all cylinders and a boyish US team looking to join the clan of giant killers in the unpredictable tournament .

Brimming with talent, the Three Lions are eyeing their first World Championship since 1966. Continuing to learn and develop, the United States have the modest goal of advancing to the knockout stages after failing to qualify for the tournament four years ago.

They have only met twice before at the World Cup and the Americans are yet to lose (an upset in Brazil 1950 and a draw in South Africa 2010). A win or draw would not only fuel America’s immediate cause, but also fuel greater ambitions to become a formidable soccer country in men’s soccer. (The women’s program has long since arrived.)

“Obviously that’s a huge opportunity to quickly track the impact that we can have,” said Captain Tyler Adams. “These are the games where it’s a privileged moment with high pressure to step onto the field against some of these guys. … It means a lot to the team because we’ve been trying to move this thing forward for the last three years and we’ve been moving in the right direction.”

Tyler Adams, a leader “by his actions and words,” was named USMNT Captain

The links between the programs begin with trainers Gregg Berhalter and Englishman Gareth Southgate, who have become good friends over the years. Both took over from disoriented teams, Berhalter after the 2018 qualifying fiasco and Southgate after underperforming at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

After their teams were grouped together in the World Cup draw, they didn’t have much contact.

“I contacted him via WhatsApp but I didn’t see the blue tick” showing Southgate read the message, Berhalter joked Thursday. “We took a kind of break. We will resume our relationship after tomorrow.”

Southgate said: “I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Greg over the past few years. I learned a lot from him and it was really interesting to see how the team is developing under his leadership.”

Almost half of the 26-man US squad has English connections. The sons of American fathers, defense attorneys Antonee Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers were born and raised in England. New York-born midfielder Yunus Musah lived there from the ages of 9 to 16, rising through Arsenal academy and playing for England youth teams.

Musah’s loss hit England. “Obviously he 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’m going to feel [Friday]. It’s definitely a special game because I played for both sides.”

Carter-Vickers, 24, said: “My family, half want us to win and half want England to win.”

Forward Gio Reyna, 20, was born in Sunderland, England while his father Claudio, the former US captain, 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 employed by English clubs. Striker Jordan Morris spent time on loan at Welsh club Swansea City in the second-tier English championship and midfielder Luca de la Torre started his career at Fulham from London.

Berhalter, a former defender, played for London’s Crystal Palace for a season.

The Premier League is “the game I grew up with and experienced first-hand” when I played for Arsenal, Turner said. “It was an eye-opening experience to see it from both sides.”

Three of Turner’s Arsenal team-mates have been called up to England’s World Cup squad: goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, defender Ben White and striker Bukayo Saka. “Friends off the pitch,” Turner said, “and then when you get on the pitch, you’re fully focused for 90 minutes.”

The “Banana” story of Matt Turner, the late-rising USMNT goaltender at the World Cup

As a youth player, Adams idolized Arsenal star Thierry Henry – he became Henry’s team-mate with the New York Red Bulls – and was drawn to the Premier League. Adams joined Leeds United from RB Leipzig this summer. His coach Jesse Marsch is American, as is teammate Aaronson.

“I remember telling my mum when I was young that I wanted to play in England,” said Adams, 23. “There’s something special about the Premier League – it always has been and I think there always will be .”

Berhalter, Turner and Adams all cited the popularity of the Premier League in the United States thanks to NBC Sports’ extensive coverage.

“Waking up to the Premier League and everyone in America seems to have a team they support,” Berhalter said. “It’s an incredible league. We are really proud that our players play in this league.”

Southgate said: “We know a lot about it [U.S.] Players from our league and we know their quality and athleticism.”

With so many Americans playing in England, perhaps reverence for the Three Lions has been tempered. All members of the England squad, with the exception of midfielder Jude Billingham, who lives in Germany, are employed by a Premier League club.

“I wouldn’t say there’s a lot of things out there that intimidate me, other than spiders,” Adams said, laughing, during a press conference at the Qatar National Convention Center, one floor below a giant spider sculpture.

“So it’s okay for me to have the opportunity to play against all these big players, but we also want to show what we’re capable of and that US soccer is growing and developing in the right way.”

Englishmen have also come to the States. Wayne Rooney played for DC United in 2018 and 2019 and now coaches the club.

England, who know the burden of expectations, open the World Cup with a great look

When asked late that season if his allegiances were divided, the England team’s all-time top scorer said: “No. I’m English. Of course I want England to win.”

But he joked that when the Three Lions stumble, “I’ll have to call it football next [MLS] Season.”

World Cup in Qatar

Live Updates: The last eight teams to make their debuts in Qatar will face off in Group G and Group H matches on Thursday. Follow us for the latest news, updates and highlights.

USMNT: On their return to the World Cup, the young Americans settled for a 1-1 draw with Wales in their Group B opener defeated Iran 6-2 on Monday.

Qatar controversy: Football fans who wear the rainbow, a symbol of LGBTQ inclusivity, have said they have been denied entry into World Cup stadiums and have been confronted by the public to remove the emblem.

Group leader: The USA men’s soccer team, led by coach Gregg Berhalter and star forward Christian Pulisic, has qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement on a disastrous and unsuccessful 2018 season. Here’s a close look at how all the teams in each group are faring stack.

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