DOHA, Qatar. Gregg Berhalter made a mission statement at his first meeting with the US Men’s National Team. That was almost four years ago, shortly after the fall of American football. He stood in front of two dozen players as their new USMNT coach and told them that their guiding star went beyond wins and world championships.
“What we want to do,” he said, “is change the world’s attitude towards American football.”
And on Friday, towards the end of a four-year journey, they will have a golden opportunity to do so.
They will take to the biggest sports arena, the World Cup, on European prime time to face England, the self-proclaimed inventors of football. They have to fight with players from the league, which is watched by the whole world. They will refuse to be respected by a country whose media is spreading global narratives about the game.
They will play 90 minutes that, for better or worse, right or wrong, will confirm or deny their progress in the eyes of billions.
And they welcome this burden. They value responsibility. They know this is their chance to change perception forever.
“That’s what we’re here for,” striker Christian Pulisic said last week. “May be [soccer] was not the best sport or anything in the States. We want to change the world’s attitude towards American football. … This is one of our goals.”
“This is the biggest football stage you can have”
Berhalter inherited a program still reeling from the colossal failure of the 2018 World Cup cycle and gave it direction almost immediately. But what he could not change were the ingrained beliefs and prejudices associated with sports in America.
They appeared shortly after the USMNT qualified for the 2022 World Cup, minutes and hours after they were placed in a group with England. The British tabloids giggled with delight.
“YANKEE DODDL DANDY”, one screamed to celebrate England’s good fortune.
The headlines reeked of disrespect, all too familiar to American coaches and players. Bob Bradley felt this keenly in 2016 when he became the first US-born Premier League club manager. He saw it in ridicule and laughter. Jesse Marsh, current Leeds United boss talked about it also.
Berhalter felt it too, but more from afar. And while the tabloids were cackling, he saw an “opportunity” to do something about it. As are his players.
“I think playing against England has a lot of advantages,” midfielder Weston McKenny said at the time. “This is the biggest stage you can have in football. Playing with them in the World Cup and playing against players that people know… you can take a step forward in your player development, make yourself more famous, and also just make the team more respected, looked at more, believed in more. .
“And that’s the goal Gregg set for himself when he took over,” McKenney confirmed. “That’s something that’s always repeated whenever we go to camp: ‘Change the way the world looks at American football.’ And there is no better place and no better time to do it.”
A global change in the perception of American football starts at home
“It was great to have England in our group,” Berhalter said that day. “It’s a game that always gets a lot of attention because of England, their fans and their solid place in football.”
However, he and others also knew that it would grab the attention of tens of millions of Americans—and that part of changing the way the world views football is changing the way America views it.
“We want to make an impact – obviously on ourselves and on our team, but ultimately on how football is perceived by fans in the US,” said linebacker Tyler Adams. “And then, ultimately, globally,” he added. “You want to earn the respect of some of the best football nations in the world.” But the battle starts or maybe ends at home.
American players know about it. They know that football, for three years and 10 months out of every four-year cycle, remains a second-class citizen in the American sports arena. They also know that there is a segment of American football fans, sometimes derisively called “Eurosnobs”, who shun domestic football and only watch the Champions League or the English Premier League.
They know because in some cases they were among these people as children. This is the first generation of USMNT stars who grew up on Fox Soccer Channel and Gol TV. “I only watched the Premier League as a kid,” Adams said last week. “I think a lot of young Americans would probably say the same thing.”
Some of them, including Adams, are now playing in the Premier League. And as individuals, they began to change perceptions.
“When Christian does well at Dortmund and at Chelsea, it helps other people say, ‘Hey, let’s look at Weston McKenny or Adams or [Brenden] Aaronsohn or someone else,” former US Soccer president Sunil Gulati told Sportzshala Sports this summer. This raises transfer value, promotes acceptance and becomes “self-fulfilling,” Gulati added.
These players also began to make outspoken statements. When Aaronson erupted at Leeds in August, he boldly stated in a post-match interview: “It just shows people all over the world that Americans can play football too.”
But they know, as a team, that they are not fully respected either here, at the World Championships, or even in the States, among the masses.
Some consider them a sleeping giant in the sport, but with a focus on sleep.
On Friday, in front of the whole world, they might wake up.