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Monday, February 6, 2023

Whether you like to call it football or soccer is up to you. The United States of America has claimed ownership over the territory

A chant reverberated for a few seconds from far away in one section of the stadium before blending back into the background noise.

It’s pronounced “soccer,” the American supporters yelled at their English colleagues. Say it with me now: “Soc-cer!”

The United States has used the great powers of Europe as a convenient measuring stick as it has seen its soccer culture grow over the last several decades. England, which calls the game “football” and is certain in its superiority over American players, has yet served as the most important benchmark throughout the sport’s history.

The proof is everywhere you look in the United States: longtime and new soccer fans alike are tuning in to the weekend morning broadcasts of the English Premier League. Borrowing heavily from English sports culture, American soccer stadiums have created their own unique tradition, but one that is unmistakably rooted in English traditions. And the finest American players still fantasise of leaving for foreign fields, any fields at first, but ultimately the hallowed turf of England.

The United States received a rare chance to gauge the narrowing gap between the teams on Friday night, and by most accounts they played excellently, scraping to a 0-0 stalemate that put their World Cup fate in their own hands.

The outcome, along with other subtle cues like the supporters’ snarky slogan, demonstrated that the United States was on the rise and ready to take on the world.

Despite widespread pessimism, the United States’s Weston McKennie, who plays in the midfield, thinks his team can yet pull off a shocking upset. To the outside world, we were the clear underdogs coming into this game. But we never felt like the underdog since we are fully aware of our potential and the strength of our will and determination.

If the United States beats Iran on Tuesday in their last group stage game, it will go on to play the winners of Groups B and C. The Americans complained that it seemed like the first round of the sudden-death knockout round had already begun.

And the United States’ head coach, Gregg Berhalter, expressed appreciation for the seeming clarity of the situation: “We win or we’re out of the World Cup.”

The English know they can progress with a draw next week, but they also know things might have been far worse.

At the final whistle, English supporters in the stadium voiced their disappointment with the team. When asked about the evening’s disappointing performance, Coach Gareth Southgate afterwards attempted to downplay the significance of the loss.

World Cup matchups often have high stakes, and this particular evening was no exception. Two of the biggest sets of visiting supporters in the tournament met inside Al Bayt Stadium, a towering structure styled like a traditional Bedouin tent, to cheer for their respective teams.

When the groups were revealed earlier in the year, fans from both nations immediately marked their calendars for the upcoming encounter. It would have been strange not to, given the countries’ similar language, shared cultural references, and ever-increasing mutual interest in sporting events.

The teams were similarly excited. When Gregg Berhalter took over as head coach of the United States national team in 2018, he gave his players a simple but resounding mandate: transform the perception of American soccer throughout the globe.

As for how the world views the team now, Berhalter said, “We’re chipping away at it.” To be able to achieve it, you need opportunities like tonight. It would be difficult for individuals to form an opinion otherwise. To put it simply, we’re not finished yet. Our goal is to make it to the finals of the event unscathed and give the audience something to talk about.

Southgate was impressed by the United States’ relentless pressure on his players. The Americans tinkered with their typical formations in the heat of the game, flaring men into unexpected spots on offensively and defence, and pushing England to do the same.

The U.S. team needed assured play from everyone, and they got it for the most part. In particular, McKennie’s energy and activity made life difficult for the England defence. In the 26th minute, he had a wide-open look at goal when a cross was sent to the penalty area, but he shanked his attempt.

The coaches began making adjustments a little over an hour into the game. To revitalise his sputtering squad, Southgate might bring in Premier League talents like midfielder Jordan Henderson and striker Jack Grealish. By that point, the younger American side had taken control of the game. After a while, Berhalter responded with his own offensive alternatives, midfielder Aaronson and striker Gio Reyna.

Still, the score remained knotted up until the final whistle, when the United States team was cheered on by their fans and the England team was met with a wave of jeers by the English faithful.

Dan O'Brien
I am a journalist for The National Era with an emphasis in sports.
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