Why USMNT's frustration after World Cup draw with England represents progress

AL KHOR, Qatar — The last time the U.S. men’s national team was here, sitting in a sweaty locker room after a World Cup draw with England, the editors at the New York Post were concocting a headline that accurately captured America’s delight.

“USA WINS 1-1,” the tabloid bellowed in 2010, and inside that U.S. locker room, although players certainly didn’t proclaim victory, confidence soared. Positivity pervaded. A point, against a supposed World Cup contender, represented success.

But here, in Qatar on Friday night, there was no satisfaction. Tyler Adams stepped before a throng of reporters and said that he was “not happy” with the USMNT’s latest stalemate with England.

Adams, the recently elected USMNT captain, went on to cover the full spectrum of emotions that swirled in the bowels of the Al Bayt Stadium after U.S. 0, England 0. Many were nuanced and measured. But the most resonant words were those of Adams, and midfielder Weston McKennie and defender Tim Ream.

“It felt like we dominated the game,” McKennie said. “I think we had the more clear-cut chances. Obviously it sucks that we couldn't put the ball in the back of the net, and come out with the win, and three points.”

And so, were they frustrated?

“Yeah, for sure,” Ream said. “Because we felt like we played well enough to get three points."

And as they spoke, they solidified what millions of Americans felt while watching Friday’s football. The USMNT didn’t just belong on the same field as England, which they’d already proved in 2010. They hadn’t simply earned a draw with a World Cup favorite. They’d outplayed that favorite, just as they’d expected to — and they weren’t satisfied; they wanted more — because they have, since that 1-1 “win” in 2010, made non-linear progress.

They remain in a perilous position, in third place out of four in Group B, with a win over Iran their only route to the knockout stages. But they didn’t scrape by with a point and celebrate; instead, they took a point but thought they deserved more.

They pushed back on the notion that England was on top early before the U.S. took control. “On top of us? I don't know,” Adams said, oozing confidence.

USA's Christian Pulisic reacts during the World Cup match between England and USA on Nov. 25. (Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)
USA's Christian Pulisic reacts during the World Cup match between England and USA on Nov. 25. (Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

They didn’t feel like an underdog, like the 2010 team so clearly was. “We didn't feel like an underdog at all,” McKennie said. “Because we know our capability. We know what we can do.”

They looked back on “a pretty good performance,” and were “pleased.”

England fans, informed by outdated perceptions, rained boos at the final whistle.

Southgate, informed by hours and hours of study, said: “I'm really pleased with the application of the players. I think it was a really tough opponent.”

“Tonight didn't surprise me one bit,” he later continued, hailing the USMNT. “The way they pressed, the energy, the athleticism, was exactly what I thought. So, it was whether we were gonna be able to find the solutions tonight to cope with that, counter that, exploit that, and we answered most of the questions, but not all of them.”

None of it surprised England midfielder Jordan Henderson either. “It was a difficult game, as we knew it would be,” he said.

Those outdated perceptions, of the USMNT as an industrious-but-underskilled team, still exist throughout global soccer, and they’re what this team under head coach Gregg Berhalter has set out to reshape. He made it his mission statement at his very first meeting with the team back in January 2019, to “change the way the world views American soccer.”

Nearly four years later, on the biggest stage that his players had stepped onto, they are doing that — but they aren’t reveling in their success. There are no moral victories.

“We're chipping away at it,” Berhalter said of changing perceptions. But, he clarified, “we're not done. Our focus is to keep going. Hopefully by the end of the tournament, we'll give people something to talk about.”