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The worst American soccer chant goes, “I … I believe … I believe that we will win.” It betrays the anxieties of those who bellow it; far from arrogantly assuming victory, it seems to argue that the success of the United States men’s soccer team is a matter of prayerful thinking. Beating England is not a dream, if you will it.
But the chant, for many years, was also an honest assessment of the quality of the U.S. Men’s National Team. Its triumphs at big tournaments, when they occurred, felt a bit like a fairy tale, because they were so unexpected—and often so undeserved.
In 2010, the United States tied England, 1–1, in Phokeng, South Africa. Although the scoreline implied an even match, the tie was anything but. The Americans owed their goal to a Rob Green goalkeeping error that humiliated even the side that benefited from it. For large stretches of the match, the U.S. blindly lumped the ball up the field to desperately relieve the incessant pressure on its goal. That evening the United States more closely resembled Paraguay or New Zealand, one of the minnows of a World Cup that knows how to bunker down and ride its luck.
Today’s U.S. men’s performance wasn’t like that. It wasn’t one of those occasions where, after the match, we give the lads a congratulatory tussle of the hair and praise their grit. The result implied parity, but the U.S. was the better team: more coherently organized, tactically braver, and, for the most part, just as skilled as its opponent.
Sometimes progress is measured in draws.
Part of the wishful thinking of American soccer fans is the claim that the team is just about to truly ascend and take its rightful place among the nations that can credibly compete for the World Cup. But the history of American soccer over the generations is a succession of false dawns. In 2014, after the United States lost to Belgium in the round of 16, I wrote an essay about the electric future of the team. I reeled off a list of the promising players who were just about to join the squad. But four years later, the United States couldn’t even qualify for the tournament.
The faith in U.S. soccer during those years was a matter of delusion, I admit. The team had athleticism, good goalkeeping, and determination, but it was incapable of dominating weaker teams at a World Cup. And against the tournament’s elites, it typically scored against the run of play.
This is the first time that a United States team has a coterie of players who play for storied clubs and compete in the Champions League. Take Weston McKennie, who starts for Juventus. Tonight against England, he performed with exceptional swagger. He not only covered a huge amount of the field, but he managed to intelligently occupy unexpected spaces, sometimes in the box, other times combining on the right flank. When he wiped his sweaty hands on a photographer’s fluorescent jacket before taking a throw in, I thought to myself, This is not a guy who needs to tell himself that he believes he can win.
Before this tournament, I doubted the U.S. coach, Gregg Berhalter. It felt as if he kept trying to impose a free-flowing style of short passing on a goalkeeper and central defenders who didn’t quite have the skills to pull off his plan. When he tried to creatively alter his template, he seemed to accentuate the shortcomings in his system, rather than correct them.
Tonight, I’m prepared to celebrate his tactical brain. He got it right. By crowding the midfield, he neutralized England’s Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham. His system forced England’s center backs to serve as deep-lying playmakers. Their buildup was plodding. Bukayo Saka, one of the most electrifying players in the tournament, barely merited a mention in the match report.
In truth, this result will do nothing to alter the American calculus. The tie didn’t bolster the team’s chance of securing a place in the final 16. Everything hinges on its game against Iran on Tuesday, just as it did at the beginning of the match, and anyone who knows anything about U.S. soccer knows that this is hardly a fait accompli. But for once, the journey doesn’t feel like a fairy tale.