The many layers of US vs. England at the World Cup: Friends and teammates turned rivals
As a young kid growing up in the north of England, US men’s national team assistant coach Anthony Hudson used to carry around the jersey his father, Alan, wore in his debut for the Three Lions against West Germany in 1975.
Hudson would pop on a VHS tape of his old man and brag to his friends.
“I was just very, very proud of him,” he recalled.
Hudson was born in Seattle when his father played there for the NASL’s Sounders, but he fell in love with the game back in England at the Victoria Ground in Stoke. He had dreams of following in the family footsteps, but even he probably never dreamed of where his career would take him: a World Cup game between his two countries.
“When the draw came out, it was an amazing moment,” Hudson said. “I remember calling my family and they’re all screaming and it was just a proud moment, an exciting moment. Any player or coach, the dream is to play or coach in the World Cup. So to be doing it and playing against one of the top teams, and one I have a connection with, is really special.”
On Friday evening at Al Bayt Stadium (2pm ET), Hudson will be one of a healthy contingent of US men’s national team players and staff with connections to their opponent, group-favorite England. Hudson, as well as midfielder Yunus Musah, left back Antonee Robinson, center back Cameron Carter-Vickers and goalkeeping coach Aron Hyde were either born in or have roots in England.
It will undoubtedly be a special moment when they hear both anthems.
“I don’t know how I’m going to feel that day,” said Musah, who was born in New York, moved to Italy and then England as a child, and has not only played for but captained England youth sides. “But it’s a special game, for sure, because I’ve been on both sides.”
For many of the players with roots in England, it’s created a bit of a fun rivalry with family and friends. Robinson, who has an American father and was born in England and raised in White Plains, NY, said it’s been an easy choice for his family: they’ll cheer for the US on Friday. Musah said most friends have told him they want him to play well, but are rooting for England to win.
Carter-Vickers smiled when asked during a news conference on Wednesday who his family would cheer for.
“Half of them want us to win and half of them want England to win,” said the defender, who was born in Southend-on-Sea, in the county of Essex, to an American father and English mother. Carter-Vickers’ father, Howard Carter, was a star basketball player for LSU in the 1980s. Carter-Vickers often went back to Baton Rouge, La., to be with family.
For Robinson, facing England will bring a bit of delayed gratification. He had a chance to play for the US against England at Wembley in 2018, but was injured in training during the days leading up to the game. Robinson said he was devastated to miss the opportunity, but he’ll now have the chance to one-up the experience by facing England on the sport’s biggest stage.
“To actually finally get to play against England, and it’s at a World Cup, kind of puts two joyous moments into one,” Robinson told The Athletic. “It’s just one of those days that you’ve just got to enjoy every minute of it.”
The connections between this US team and England run deeper than just the English-American contingent, however.
Several Americans currently play in, or have previously played, their club football in England.
Christian Pulisic is at Chelsea, Tyler Adams and Brenden Aaronson play at Leeds United, Matt Turner is the back-up at Arsenal, and Ethan Horvath starts in the second-tier championship at Luton Town. Tim Ream has long been a stalwart at Fulham, Josh Sargent is at Norwich City, another Championship team, DeAndre Yedlin spent parts of five seasons playing for Newcastle United, Gio Reyna was born in England and head coach Gregg Berhalter spent 18 months at Crystal Palace .
The familiarity and friendships between the two teams will add an extra layer to the all-important game. The match will pit club teammates — like Turner against Aaron Ramsdale and Bukayo Saka; Pulisic against Mason Mount and Raheem Sterling; Reyna and Jude Bellingham, among others — as well as former teammates, like Musah and Saka, and Carter-Vickers and Kieran Trippier against each other.
Where England v USA will be won and lost: set pieces, political and pressing
On the day of the World Cup group draw in April, Pulisic said that the first call he got was from Mount. Reyna joked this week that he and Bellingham may not be able to swap shirts if they get into a fight during the game.
“Of course it gets to a point where you talk about it and of course leading up to the game how excited you are to play against him, and you kind of talk smack, for sure,” Reyna said the other day. But then, once you get on the field, it’s nothing really like that anymore. You’re kind of focusing, you don’t really even think about it. … We’ll text before, we’re already texting now, and then we’ll be ready to get after it.”
That familiarity could also prove to be a benefit for the US
Even though England are coming off a run to the final of the European Championship last year and beat Iran 6-2 on Monday in their opening game, there won’t be much of an intimidation factor for the Americans when facing an opponent with which they are so familiar. Many of them will be adapted to the English game.
There are recurring themes and words to explain what US players encounter in English football and what they take from it. “Speed” and “physicality” are mentioned repeatedly, which is not surprising. “Intensity,” too, is an expected response, but it is interesting that it felt not just on the pitch but also off it. “Under a microscope”, is the phrase used by Horvath. It is an indication of the cultural environment of English football that strikes American players upon arrival.
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Horvath had been at a Champions League club, Club Brugge in Belgium, before joining Nottingham Forest last year. Prior to Brugge, he had been at Molde in Norway when they were managed by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the ex-Manchester United striker who went on to coach that club. Horvath had gone to Molde at the age of 16, straight from his native Colorado.
“Even though you’re at a Champions League club, coming to England takes a bit of adapting, everything is that split-second quicker,” Horvath says. That’s the main difference.
Plus, in England everything is just under a microscope. That’s one of the biggest differences on and off the pitch. The football culture is more intense. In Belgium you can feel the intensity in Champions League games, but then in the next game, if you’re playing a mid-division team or lower, it’s kind of mentally challenging to get up for those games.”
At the international level, Horvath is coached by an Englishman. Aron Hyde, from Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, has been the US goalkeeping coach for the past two years, having also done the job temporarily under Jurgen Klinsmann.
“The biggest things for me, when I think about football in England, is the speed and directness, power and aggression that’s involved,” said Hyde. That competition drives quality, drives the environment. There’s the savviness of competing to win, because that’s what matters in England. And it’s constant. Football is everything in England, that’s the one thing that sticks out for these guys.
Can he tell when a US player has been to England?
“Yes,” Hyde said, laughing. One thing I do notice is they all come in and start calling me ‘mate’. … They try to make this conscious effort to fit in, to use the lingo, the banter. But you also notice that they are improved by the natural competitive environment they’re in. I wouldn’t say it’s night and day, but I see it in all of them. No question.”
Underneath it all, the connections and the familiarity, is the undercurrent of influence that English football has had in the US From the influence of youth coaches who emigrated from England to the popularity of the Premier League, there is no European country that has had a bigger impact on the sport in the US
For that reason, the England game also creates somewhat of a proving ground for Americans.
They know that back home, playing against England will be seen as a measuring stick for fans who have more familiarity with the Premier League than anything else.
It’s an idea that’s been on the minds of those around the US team going back to the day the groups were drawn.
Where England v USA will be won and lost: set pieces, political and pressing
“I know there is a lot of respect for American soccer, but I think this is an opportunity, for sure,” Berhalter said that day. This is an opportunity for us to show what we’re made of. They have a good team, but so do we. We have a young team, we have an athletic team, we have a team that doesn’t have a lot of fear, and it’s going to be a great game.
And I think even for the fans to be so familiar with (the England) players, they’re household names, and then to see us match up against them, I think it will provide some context and it’ll be, I think , really interesting for the fans as well.”
(Photo illustration: Eamonn Dalton / The Athletic; (photos: Richard Sellers, Stu Forster, Patrick T. Fallon / AFP via Getty Images)