After a brief interruption in programming Tuesday, the U.S. soccer team will return to its familiar role on the world stage when it plays England on Friday in Al Khor, Qatar: As massive underdogs in the World Cup.
Maybe this is a good thing for the Americans, who are coming off an unfulfilling 1-1 draw with Wales on Monday in the first of its three Group B matches, taking just one point instead of three.
Though the U.S., ranked 16th in the world, was hardly a heavy favorite against 19th-ranked Wales, it didn’t handle prosperity well after playing a strong first half. The Americans built a 1-0 lead before looking like the less-fit team in the final 45 minutes.
The U.S. was outmaneuvered by Wales in the second half, playing to protect the lead instead of maintaining its more aggressive approach from the first half, and Wales had the Americans on the back foot for the remainder of the match. If we’re being honest, the U.S. was fortunate it didn’t lose the match.
The draw with Wales left the Americans in a precarious position, needing a win over either England or Iran to virtually guarantee advancing into the knockout stage. At least four points is essential to advance.
England, ranked fifth in the world, crushed Iran 6-2 in its opening Group B match and looked dominant in the process.
“They’re probably one of the favorites to win the World Cup,” U.S. captain Tyler Adams said. “We know we’re probably underdogs.”
Adams can take the “probably’’ out of both of those sentences.
That’s OK, though, because there’s a youthful brashness to the U.S. team, which is the second-youngest team at this World Cup and seems to embrace the underdog role.
“We’ve always been the underdog in the eyes of America,” forward Tim Weah, who scored the U.S. goal against Wales, said. “They kind of wonder if we know how to play football. And I think it’s our time to show the world we’re capable of playing with the best and beating the best.”
Here’s the thing about this World Cup: Some of the so-called “best’’ teams have already been taken down by underdogs: Saudi Arabia, ranked 51st in the world, stunned No. 3 Argentina and 24th-ranked Japan beat No. 11 Germany.
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Don’t think those results aren’t on the minds of the upstart Americans, who are very much in “why not us?’’ mode.
Another factor in the favor of the U.S. side is the fact that so many of its players are contemporaries — and in some cases club teammates — of the England players, playing in the Premier League.
Christian Pulisic, considered the best U.S. player, plays for Chelsea. Goalkeeper Matt Turner plays for Arsenal. Defenders Tim Ream and Antonee Robinson both play for Fulham. Adams plays for Leeds United, as does midfielder Brenden Aaronson. Forward Josh Sargent plays for Norwich City.
Midfielder Yunus Musah was born in New York City, but grew up in London, was a member of Arsenal’s youth system and captained England’s under-18 team. U.S. defender Cameron Carter-Vickers was born in England and, like Musah, was eligible to play for either England or America.
All of this lessens the intimidation element, if there is one at all. The Americans will enter the match with no fear. They just need to play better than they did against Wales to come away with a positive result.
“We’ve always carried a chip on our shoulder,” Adams said. “Playing against a lot of those guys week in and week out gives you a little bit of familiarity going into the game.’’
A win virtually would guarantee the U.S. a ticket to the knockout stage as one of the top 16 in play to win it all. A draw, while it would represent a strong confidence boost for the Americans, would still leave the U.S. needing a victory over Iran in the final Group B match Tuesday.
“It’s going to be a big challenge,” Turner, a New Jersey native who played at Fairfield University, said. “You see that the world of football is leveling out in a lot of ways. I think the message is when you have one team that’s bought into the same message, you can beat anyone on any given day.”
England clearly will enter the match wary of the Americans. The lopsided win over Iran was barely over when England coach Gareth Southgate was chiding his side for its “sloppy’’ play at the end of the match, warning that the U.S. would be coming “full-throttle” on Friday. Southgate was already sending a message to his players that they’ll need to be even better against the Americans.
“They’re a top nation with a lot of top players who have played in the Premier League and who we’ve come up against,’’ England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford said.
Pickford then referenced the World Cup upsets already in the books, after Argentina and Germany had lost.
“It’s what World Cup football is all about,” he said. “There are going to be surprises.”