There’s a saying in fashion that two is a coincidence but three is a trend. Say what you want about the United States still having never lost to England at the World Cup and the abbreviated sample size behind it, but there must by now be something about the Americans’ habit of elevating their game when they meet the English on soccer’s biggest stage.
They played for the first time in 1950, when an American team of amateurs including a mailman, a dishwasher and a hearse driver famously bucked the odds and marred England’s tournament debut with a 1-0 stunner in Belo Horizonte. Then came a 1-1 draw six decades later in South Africa, when Rob Green’s goalkeeping gaffe canceled out Steven Gerrard’s early strike.
And now this, a scoreless draw on a humid Friday night along the northeast coast of Qatar that leaves Gregg Berhalter’s young Americans with a clear path to the knockout stage and feeling awfully good about themselves after trading blows with one of the tournament favorites and getting the better of the exchanges for most of the night.
Their nine other meetings outside the World Cup, all since the second world war, have been mostly one-way traffic: England winning eight, drawing none and losing once, in something called the US Cup, back in 1993. But for some unexplained reason, the Americans have managed to punch above their weight against the Three Lions when the lights have burned brightest.
“I don’t think we’re really disappointed [with the result],” said Weston McKennie, who wasted the best chance of the night for either side in the 26th minute when he darted into the box unmarked and sent a volley soaring over the bar. “We felt like we were all in. We held the ball really well, It just sucks we couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net.”
This wasn’t the US team we saw in qualifying, who slogged to a third-place finish in Concacaf to end their eight-year World Cup absence. Nor the one who performed well enough against so many minnows over the past year but often thrashed helplessly against stiffer opposition, failing to score in six of their most recent seven games against countries who qualified for Qatar. Nor the one that looked so listless in their final tune-up friendlies against Saudi Arabia and Japan – although those have aged quite well considering results over the last week.
After a shaky opening 15 minutes on Friday, the Americans grew into the game and began overrunning the midfield, where McKennie, Yunus Musah, Christian Pulisic and USA captain Tyler Adams came to dominate their more famous counterparts. They defended with discipline and composure beyond their experience level, denying England opportunities to convert their advantage in possession into moments of legitimate danger. The US were fearless in transition and at times allowed to be relentless in attack.
This was a step forward from even Monday, when an entire starting team and three substitutes making their World Cup debuts met the intensity of the moment against Wales and controlled the ball for long stretches, but were unable to maintain the pressure after halftime and settled for a draw. Said Matt Turner, the Arsenal second-choice keeper and one of five USA starters on Friday who plays in the Premier League: “We refocused in the second half a lot better than we did in the first game and that’s a sign of growth and a positive sign.”
Since he was appointed manager in the foggy aftermath of the United States’ catastrophic failure to qualify for the World Cup four years ago, Berhalter has spoken of changing the way the world perceives American soccer. But the blockbuster tie with England offered a unique opportunity of changing perceptions back home.
A World Cup match against England on the day after Thanksgiving? That’s the stuff that gets the casuals under the tent. It wasn’t hard to imagine more people in the US watching Friday’s match than the previous four years of qualifiers and friendlies and Concacaf tournaments put together. Beyond the immediate stakes of reaching the knockout stage, this was a unique opportunity to elbow their way into America’s crowded sports landscape: the night the rubber would meet the road, or wouldn’t, with a group that’s been breathlessly hailed as a golden generation.
They are an immensely likable group. So young and ambitious, unscarred by failure, striking a harmonic blend of confidence and humility, a diverse and multicultural collective that reflects the nation they represent like never before. Whether it will convert the masses in sporting culture where splashy numbers are treasured and draws are anathema remains to be seen. But banking a point against the European Championship runners-up – and avoiding the heavy defeat that pessimists feared after England smashed six past Iran earlier this week – buys them precious time to further their case.
“We’ve talked about how seriously the team is taking this responsibility to gain momentum in the sport in America,” Berhalter said. “Good performances will do that. 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 about. A night like tonight helps, but there has to be more to come.”
The calculus now is simple, no hand-wringing over goal difference or permutations necessary. Win on Tuesday night against Iran and the US are into last 16, where a date with Netherlands, Ecuador or Senegal will follow. From there, only bigger games and rewards await.
“It sets up our first knockout game of the World Cup,” Berhalter said. “Overall pleased with the performance of the group. Most importantly the belief of the group, because that never wavered. What I saw pre-game was a team very focused on getting the result tonight and that’s what they did.”