England v USA is a fixture more usually associated with the humiliation of the mother country, the infamous 1-0 defeat at the 1950 World Cup which the papers labelled as England’s worst result still scars the mind of English football fans, even if few would have been alive to recall the day the likes of Billy Wright, Alf Ramsey, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen were humbled.
Then there was Rob Green’s gaffe in the turgid draw in the 2010 World Cup which The New York Post famously celebrated on its front page with the headline: ‘USA Wins 1-1 — Greatest tie against the British since Bunker Hill’, referencing the 1775 battle in the War of Independence to take Boston from the British.
But the US team has been around long enough to have its own footballing catastrophes and none is more painful than Couva, 2017. ‘That was one of the toughest days of my life,’ recalled Christian Pulisic last week, who was 19 at the time and already touted as the national team’s next big thing. ‘I’ll never forget it.’
Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic was part of the USA side that missed out on the 2018 World Cup
This time he will go to the World Cup, and USA will face England in Qatar in November
That was the night USA were beaten 2-1 by Trinidad and Tobago and failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Coming on the back of the heroic 2014 World Cup campaign, which had made household names of Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey, after a narrow defeat by Belgium in the last 16, it was a bitter blow. In 2014 they had been feted by President Obama and then Vice President Joe Biden had flown to Brazil to give the team a pep talk. Soccer seemed mainstream.
Since 2018, the US team has had to build back better, with Chelsea’s Pulisic at its heart. That has at times seemed a burden. He dislikes the ‘Captain America’ moniker he has been given. ‘It has been a lot to live up to,’ he told ESPN recently. ‘Especially in the US, I think I do have pretty high standards that people set for me, and it can be tough at times.
‘Sometimes I put too much pressure on myself that I need to do something special where I just need to play the best I can, do what I can do. I’m going into it thinking, “I need to overperform and do something to save the team”, but there’s no need for that because we have a very strong team.’
USA have turned their fortunes around under manager Gregg Berhalter in recent years
It has not been straight-forward. They recruited coach Gregg Berhalter, who had a short spell with Crystal Palace in 2000-01, from Columbus Crew rather than go for a big-name import. Early defeats by Jamaica, Venezuela and Mexico in the Gold Cup final did not suggest renaissance especially when Canada, the new darlings of North American soccer, beat them 2-0 in the Nations League.
Tactically Berhalter switched to a more direct style rather than his previous insistence on passing out from the back. Bonding trips, climbing an Alpine peak in Switzerland and hiring a Dallas comedy club for a night of improv from team members, much of it directed at Berhalter himself, seemingly brought the squad together. Indeed, Berhalter has picked Gareth Southgate’s brains on the unique challenge of creating a distinctive national team ambience.
Even then. 1-0 down in San Pedro Sula against Honduras in September saw them on the brink of World Cup qualifying failure. They would win that game 4-1, perform solidly thereafter and qualify with a game to spare, Pulisic fulfilling the Captain America role with a hat-trick in the 5-1 win against Panama.
They are the youngest team in US history but several are well known to England fans. Gio Reyna, 19, is the son of former Sunderland and Manchester City attacking midfielder Claudio and is Jude Bellingham’s midfield partner at Borussia Dortmund. Yunus Musah, 19,played for England’s Under-18s while at Arsenal and now plays for Valencia. Antonee Robinson, 24, born in Milton Keynes to a father who gained US citizenship, is Fulham’s left back. Zack Steffen, 27, has impressed as Manchester City’s No2 goalkeeper.
Gio Reyna has established himself as Borussia Dortmund and is also a key player for the USA
And they will not be without motivation. Football is the one area where England still gets to patronise the USA. Ted Lasso, the superb Apple TV comedy, captures that perfectly. Leeds manager Jesse Marsch has referenced the superiority complex of English football when dealing with Americans and Berhalterhas noted that.
‘You hear Jesse and some of his comments about what he has to go through and it’s too much,’ said the USA coach. ‘You’re an established coach, you do well and you are not treated like that whereas if he was from Portugal, for example, you would be treated differently.’
November 25th, 2022, a day after Thanksgiving, is a fresh opportunity to make England sit up and take notice.