The United States is targeting a giant in a World Cup showdown with England

Suspension

Al Rayyan, Qatar—two land masses separated by the high seas and two-tenths of football and soccer—divided by a similarly large distance. It’s England’s national pastime—aside from royal viewing, of course—and an unofficial getaway for most Americans.

Some English Premier League clubs trace their history back to the 19th century. The history of MLS dates back to 1996. The English invented the modern game. Americans fiddled with the rules before they were adopted.

However, soccer’s ties between the nations have strengthened, intrinsically linked to exposure to the English game in the United States, the desire of many American players to plan a career in England, and a greater respect in England for how American soccer has grown.

With these dynamics at work comes a World Cup clash this Friday in Pitt, Qatar, between an English competitor firing on all cylinders and a boyish American team seeking to join their clan of giant killers in this unlikely tournament.

Brimming with talent, the Three Lions are watching their first world championship since 1966. The United States has a modest goal of advancing to the playoffs after failing to qualify for the tournament four years ago, and is learning and improving.

They’ve only clashed in World Cups twice before, and the Americans have yet to lose (the upset of 1950 in Brazil and the 2010 tie in South Africa). A win or a draw would not only inflame the immediate American cause, but would bolster larger ambitions of becoming a formidable soccer nation in the men’s game. (The women’s program arrived a long time ago.)

“It’s clearly a huge opportunity to accelerate the impact we can make,” said Capt. Tyler Adams. “These are the games where the pressure is high, and a special moment to get on the field against some of these players. … It means a lot to the team because we’ve been trying to make progress on this thing for the last three years and we’re moving in the right direction.”

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Relationships between the two programs begin with the coaches, Greg Berhalter and England’s Gareth Southgate, who have become good friends over the years. Both sides captained teams in need of guidance, Berhalter after a fiasco in the 2018 qualifying campaign and Southgate after subpar performances in the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016.

After their teams were drawn together for the World Cup draw, they didn’t have much contact.

“I contacted him on WhatsApp, but I didn’t see the blue checkmark” showing that Southgate had read the message, Berhalter joked on Thursday. “We kind of took a hiatus. We’re going to start our relationship the day after tomorrow.”

Southgate said: “I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Greg over the past few years. I’ve learned a lot from him, and it’s been really exciting to see the team progress under his leadership.”

Almost half of the American list of 26 men in relationships are English. The children of American parents and defenders Anthony Robinson and Cameron Carter-Vickers, he was born and raised in England. New York-born midfielder Younes Moussa lived there from the ages of 9 to 16, rising through Arsenal’s academy and playing for England’s national youth teams.

The loss of Moses nullified England. “Obviously he took one from us, which we weren’t happy about,” Southgate said. “fair play.”

Musa, 19, said: “I’m not quite sure how I feel [Friday]. It’s a special match, for sure, because I’ve played for both sides.”

“My family, half of it wants us to win and the other half wants England to win,” said Carter Vickers, 24.

Striker Gio Reina, 20, was born in Sunderland, England, while his father, Claudio, the former US captain, is in the middle of his European career.

Adams, goalkeeper Matt Turner, striker Brendan Aaronson, defender Tim Ream and forwards Josh Sargent and Christian Pulisic all work for English clubs. Striker Jordan Morris spent some time on loan to the Welsh side Swansea City in the English second-division championship, and midfielder Luca de la Torre began his career with London-based Fulham.

Berhalter, a former defender, played one season with Crystal Palace in London.

Turner said the Premier League is “the game I grew up watching, and I experienced it first hand” playing for Arsenal. “It was an amazing experience when I saw it from both sides.”

Three of Turner’s Arsenal teammates have been named to the England World Cup squad: goalkeeper Aaron Ramsdale, defender Ben White and striker Bukayo Saka. “Friends off the field,” Turner said, “and then when you get on the field, it’s full focus for 90 minutes.”

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As a young player, Adams was in love with Arsenal star Thierry Henry – he became Henry’s teammate at the New York Red Bulls – and was drawn to the Premier League. This summer, Adams joined Leeds United from Germany’s Leipzig. His coach, Jesse Marsh, is American, as is his teammate, Aaronson.

Adams, 23, said: “I remember telling my mum at a young age that I wanted to play for England. There is something special about the Premier League – it always has been, and I think there always will be.”

Berhalter, Turner, and Adams cited the popularity of the Premier League in the United States, thanks to NBC Sports’ wide coverage.

“I wake up watching the Premier League, and it seems like everyone in America has a team to support,” Berhalter said. “It’s a great league. We are really proud that our players are playing in this league.”

Southgate said, “We know a lot about it [U.S.] Players from our league, and we know the quality they have and the athleticism they have.”

With so many Americans playing for England, the fear of facing the Three Lions may have eased. Every member of the England squad, with the exception of Germany midfielder Judd Bellingham, is assigned to a Premier League club.

“I wouldn’t say there are many things that scare me, other than spiders,” Adams said, laughing during a press conference at the Qatar National Convention Center, below a huge spider statue.

“So it’s good for me to have the opportunity to play against all these great players, but we also want to show that what we are capable of and that American football is growing and developing in the right way.”

The English also came to the United States. Wayne Rooney starred for D.C. United in 2018 and 2019 and is now coaching the club.

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Asked late in the season if he had split allegiance, England’s all-time leading scorer said: “No. I’m English. I want England to win, of course.”

But he joked that if the Three Lions faltered, “I should call it football for All Next [MLS] season.”

World Cup in Qatar

Live updates: The last eight teams to make their debuts will play in Qatar on Thursday in Group G and Group H matches. Follow us to get the latest news, updates and highlights.

USMNT: In their return to the World Cup, the young Americans settled for a 1-1 draw with Wales in the opening match of Group B. The US men’s national team will face a longer task on Friday against Group B favorites England, who defeated Iran 6-2 earlier on Monday.

Qatari controversy: Football fans wearing rainbows, a symbol of LGBT inclusivity, said they were banned from World Cup stadiums and confronted by members of the public to remove the logo.

Groups directory: The men’s national soccer team, led by coach Greg Berhalter and star striker Christian Pulisic, qualified for the 2022 World Cup, an improvement from their disastrous and failed 2018 campaign. Here’s a closer look at how all the teams stack up in each group.

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