‘Not just another World Cup game’: Why England must beware the ‘little brother grown up’ in USA rivalry

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Football and statistics still do not always sit comfortably alongside each other, but sometimes curiosities do not need to be tricky to count or analyse. There is, for instance, the quirk that ahead of their World Cup 2022 meeting on Friday, England are yet to beat their USA counterparts in even a semi-competitive meeting.

Those don’t come around all too often, of course: the sum total of them is the 1950 World Cup, the 2010 World Cup and, sandwiched in between but stricken from the minds of many, the 1993 US Cup. The earliest of those was the infamous 1-0 reversal which some outlets reportedly thought must be wrong, and so printed an erroneous scoreline. The most recent saw Steven Gerrard score, before Clint Dempsey’s equaliser trickled through Rob Green’s hands and over the line.

As for the one in between, that was intended as part warm-up, part acclimatising fixture ahead of the USA ‘94 World Cup – which England did not qualify for in the end. Perhaps fans and coaching staff alike should have seen that coming, after a 2-0 defeat at the Foxboro Stadium. The man who netted the second of those goals still remains the last to score for the USA in a men’s victory over England, and he also still remains an iconic figure in US men’s national team history: Alexi Lalas, then an instantly recognisable bearded centre-back, now an analyst on the USMNT and beyond.

Given he’s never one to be shy of making his point, the obvious question to Lalas is what to make of that winless streak in meaningful action for the Three Lions against the Stars and Stripes?

“Well, I think it’s obvious that when it matters, England chokes. It’s obvious that they’re scared to death of the United States,” he says. We’re off and running, then.

He is, of course, speaking in jest – mostly, anyway – but the playful tone of we want to show you up is certainly set, and remains prevalent throughout the discussion. And, there’s still an element of fact to consider in those results. Perhaps, though, it’s through a reverse lens which yields most truth: not of England being unable to scale that particular mountain, but of it meaning considerably more to the United States, who raise their game accordingly.

Because they absolutely can do, just as we often see certain perceived smaller clubs raising their own performance level against a bigger rival.

It’s just that this particular clash might have been a little more of a one-way street for some years, and the street spans an entire ocean rather than down the motorway or across the park.

Maybe that has changed, though.

Maybe, while England leant over America’s shoulder in a sporting sense, the reverse has been true for so long now in boardrooms and beyond that the sheer volume of crossover means this is now very much a rivalry in culture as much as coaching – even if some on this side of the pond haven’t quite caught on to the fact yet.

After all, every time there’s a break in domestic action it’s easy enough to see a huge volume of England-based players head straight over Stateside to embark on holidays, visit iconic stadiums or snap a social media picture with an equivalent big name from a totally different sporting code.

All of which leads to this particular game, on this particular day, being more than the sum of its parts.

Consider: it’s a major tournament, which is big enough, but then there’s the added cultural crossover. Then throw in the timing and Group B context, with USA already playing catchup to England – and then on top, there’s the fact that on American soil this game will be played with more eyeballs watching on than ever before, kicking off the day after Thanksgiving.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

To put it bluntly, it’s enormous for the USA, Lalas says. It doesn’t feel like hyperbole, just fact. He is unashamedly pro his own national side, as any supporter is, but also engaging, reflective and open to discussing every aspect of this fixture. He also acknowledges that even with two British teams in the group along with USA, it’s really only England which brings out that extra desire to win, to shock, to upset.

“We’ve built up a healthy rivalry between the countries and cultures which now spills out into ownership, players, coaches,” he told the Independent. “I think that there is an arrogance and a snobbery and an elitism that permeates a lot of the English soccer culture relative to the US. And I’m purposely saying soccer just to irritate my friends over there.

“And that’s really a part of what is going on here. It’s not just another World Cup game, it’s not just another opponent. It is this country that historically we have incredible connections with and a history hundreds of years old and all that entails away from the soccer field.

“From a rivalry perspective, it’s wonderful – it’s going to be potentially the biggest game in soccer viewing history for American television, it’s happening on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, everybody’s going to be at home. It’s already a big deal because it’s the World Cup and it just gets amped up that much more because it is England and there is this incredible connection that we have.”

Given his unique match-winning point of view, it’s of course worth taking on board Lalas’s experience.

It may not now have quite the same unbelievable quality as a shock win in the early 90s did in propelling players into the national consciousness, given the massive increase in coverage and popularity of the sport since then, but it’s still an eyeopener in how much such a result could mean – on both sides of the divide.

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

“I was just biting and scratching for any type of opportunity at that time and when you come on as a substitute and make an impact scoring against England, and beating England, that is going to draw some attention,” he explains.

“So I really used that moment. I don’t think that any of us understood the ramifications, we didn’t have context for what was going on at the time with the national team, but it became very apparent; it was very, very clear that this was a big deal, not just from a US perspective beating England, but from an England perspective, losing to the US.”

Which brings us back to group stage game two.

A defeat for England would be far from terminal, though would complicate matters in that their final game is against another of these slightly-more-one-way rivalries, so to speak, against a team who will put everything into stopping them win.

Defeat for USA at this point might be fatal, having dropped two points from a winning position against Wales. They cannot take the risk of relying on a final-day win over Iran alone being enough.

Group balance aside, Lalas acknowledges that England, like other major national teams, play under a pressure which is at times “completely out of whack” with reality in terms of expectation against reasonable results. It’s not something he will lose sleep over and feels it could, in fact, play into the USMNT’s hands.

The Concacaf side have an inexperience about the team - which on the pitch can translate into fearlessness. USA may end up being freed by a lack of expectancy relative to England, though if pure talent takes over, the former international is also realistic enough to know what might await Gregg Berhalter’s players.

 (AFP via Getty Images)
(AFP via Getty Images)

And yet, even against that, once the whistle goes there’s always that added bite to return to: the fact USA simply wants to get one over the “overlords” of the football world, and show that while they are having an ever-increasing input into English football off the pitch, they’ve also learned plenty about how to perform on it.

“I love this American team, I’m excited about this team. I’m bullish about this team and even in my desire to poke at my friends over there from an English perspective, I certainly see the reality that this is an elite opponent and we could very easily get our asses handed to us by England given the talent that they have, given the moment that they’re in.

“But this US team has a youthful swagger, a beautiful arrogance. At times they will make mistakes as young people do, but it also means that they don’t know what they don’t know – and they can use that.

“It’s that younger sibling type of mentality: where you want to beat them and you want to show them that you deserve their attention and their respect.

“And we are notorious over here for our insecurity and our inferiority complex.

“Soccer [in the US] is better for the English influence on our game. But you know, the little brother’s grown up and we’re pretty fast and strong and we believe in ourselves here. So be careful, you may have been the architect of your own demise - and in more ways than one, both on and off the field.”

England have been warned. This may not have been the game of the World Cup they were looking forward to most, or even most cautious about in preparation, but taking their eye off the ball is not an option.

If they do, they may it very difficult to get back off that younger sibling. And not for the first time, when things get competitive.