DOHA, Qatar — Gregg Berhalter made the mission statement at his very first meeting with the U.S. men’s national team. It was almost four years ago now, not long after an American soccer nadir. He stood in front of two dozen players, as their freshly minted USMNT coach, and told them that their North Star stretched beyond wins and World Cups.
“What we’re looking to do,” he said, “is change the way the world views American soccer.”
And on Friday, near the end of a four-year journey, they will get their golden opportunity to do that.
They will step onto sport’s biggest stage, at the World Cup, in European prime time, to meet England, the self-proclaimed inventors of soccer. They will duel with players from the league the whole world watches. They will scrap for respect from a country whose media drives global narratives around the game.
They’ll play 90 minutes that, for better or worse, rightly or wrongly, will validate or invalidate their progress in the eyes of billions.
And they welcome that burden. They cherish the responsibility. They know this is their chance to alter perceptions forever.
“That’s what we’re here to do,” forward Christian Pulisic said last week. “Maybe [soccer] hasn’t been the top sport, or whatever, back in the States. We want to change the way that the world sees American soccer. … That’s one of our goals.”
‘It’s the biggest stage in soccer that you can have’
Berhalter inherited a program still reeling from the colossal failure of the 2018 World Cup cycle, and almost immediately, he gave it direction. What he couldn’t change, though, were the ingrained beliefs, the stigmas around the sport in America.
“YANKEE DODDLE DANDY,” one screamed to celebrate England’s luck.
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 U.S.-born manager of a Premier League club. He saw it in the sneers and the snickers. Jesse Marsch, now the boss at Leeds United, has spoken about it as well.
Berhalter has also sensed it, more from afar. And as the tabloids were cackling, he saw an “opportunity” to do something about it. So did his players.
“I think there’s multiple benefits of playing a game against England,” midfielder Weston McKennie said at the time. “It’s the biggest stage in soccer that you can have. To play them in World Cup, and to be playing against players that people know … you can take a step forward in your player growth, and making yourself more known, and also just making the team more respected, more looked at, more believed in.
“And that’s the goal that Gregg set out to accomplish when he took over,” McKennie confirmed. “That’s something that’s always reiterated whenever we go into camp: ‘Change the way the world views American soccer.’ And there’s no better place, and no better time, to be able to do that.”
Changing perceptions of U.S. soccer globally begins at home
“It was amazing to get England in our group,” Berhalter said that day. “That’s a game that always has a lot of attention around it, because of England, and their fans, and their established place in soccer.”
He and others also knew, though, that it would snatch the attention of tens of millions of Americans — and that part of changing the way the world views American soccer is changing the way America views it.
“We want to have an impact — obviously on ourselves, and our team, but ultimately how soccer is viewed by the fans in the U.S.,” midfielder Tyler Adams said. “And then, ultimately, 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.
U.S. players aren’t ignorant to that. They know that soccer, for three years and 10 months out of every four-year cycle, remains a second-class citizen on the American sporting scene. They also know that there’s a segment of American soccer fans, sometimes derisively referred to as “eurosnobs,” who shun domestic soccer and only watch the Champions League or English Premier League.
They know because, in some cases, they were among those people as kids. They’re the first generation of USMNT stars that was raised on Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. “Growing up, all I watched is the Premier League,” Adams said last week. “I think a lot of young Americans would probably say the same.”
Several of them, including Adams, now play in the Premier League. And as individuals, they have begun to change perceptions.
“When Christian does well at Dortmund and at Chelsea, that helps other people say, ‘Hey, let’s take a look at Weston McKennie, or Adams, or [Brenden] Aaronson, or whoever else it might be,” former U.S Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Yahoo Sports this summer. It ups transfer valuations and cultivates acceptance, and becomes “self-fulfilling,” Gulati added.
Those players have also begun to make explicit statements. When Aaronson broke out at Leeds in August, he boldly stated in a postgame interview: “It just goes to show people around the world that Americans can play football too.”
But they know, as a collective, that they are not fully respected here at the World Cup, or even back in the States, by the masses.
They are viewed by some as a sleeping giant in the sport, but with emphasis on the sleeping.
On Friday, with the world watching, they can awaken.