AL KHOR, Qatar — The chant came from deep in one corner of the stadium, ringing out loud and clear for a few moments before fading back into the general cacophony of the night.
“It’s called soc-cer!” the United States fans bellowed at their England counterparts. “It’s called soc-cer!”
As the United States has seen its soccer culture develop in recent decades, it has always used the great powers of Europe as a handy measuring stick, a mark of how far it has come and how far it still needs to go. Yet it is England, a country that prefers to call the sport football and definitely believes it is better than the Americans at playing it, that has always served as the reference point that matters most.
The evidence is visible across the United States soccer landscape: American fans, old and new, now spend weekend mornings watching matches from England’s Premier League on television. In American soccer stadiums, they borrow liberally from English sports culture, making it their own, refracting it through a U.S. lens, but leaving no question of its DNA. And the best American players still dream of one day going overseas, anywhere at first, but eventually to stardom in Britain’s most storied stadiums.
On Friday night, the United States got a rare opportunity to measure the shrinking distance between the countries’ teams, and by most assessments performed admirably, scrapping to a scoreless tie that left the Americans holding their World Cup destiny in their hands.
The result — and small moments like the fans’ sassy chant — sent the message that the United States was ascendant and ambitious for more.
“There’s a lot of people that obviously thought we were going to get blown out,” said the American midfielder Weston McKennie. “We went into this game, to the outside world, as obvious underdogs. But we didn’t feel like an underdog at all, because we know our capability, we know what we can do, we know what talent and fight and spirit we have.”
In order to advance to the knockout round of the tournament, the United States has a simple task: It must beat Iran on Tuesday in the teams’ final first-round game. The Americans said it felt like the sudden-death knockout round was starting early.
And U.S. Coach Gregg Berhalter said he liked the simplicity of the task at hand, in a way: “We win or we’re out of the World Cup,” he said.
The English will go into next week knowing they need only a tie to advance, but they also left knowing the night could have gone much worse.
English fans in the stadium expressed their displeasure with the squad at the final whistle. Afterward, Coach Gareth Southgate tried to play down the disappointment of the evening.
“We’re in a good position,” he said. “We’ve got a little bit to do to qualify still, but we also have the opportunity to win the group.” He added, “The players were very down and disappointed after the game, but I told them that’s not how it’s going to be for the next few days.”
The stakes of a World Cup meeting meant there was a sense of occasion to the night, which brought together two of the largest groups of traveling fans at this tournament inside Al Bayt Stadium, a towering structure designed to look like a traditional Bedouin tent.
Fans in both countries had circled the match on their calendars when the groups were announced earlier in the year. It was hard not to, given the history and close ties between the nations, the shared language, the common vocabulary of popular culture and, increasingly, sports fandom.
It was eagerly anticipated by the teams, too. Since taking over as head coach of the U.S. national team in 2018, Berhalter has repeated a single directive — to change the way the world views American soccer — over and over to his players.
In that regard, the team seems to be steadily progressing. It has more players than ever featuring on big clubs around the world, many of them in England. The old stereotypes about American players and their limitations, they hope, are continuing to dissolve.
“We’re chipping away at it,” Berhalter said about changing global perceptions about the team. “You need games like tonight to be able to do that. Otherwise it’s hard for people to get an assessment of it. We’re not done. Our focus is to keep going, and hopefully by the end of the tournament we give people something to talk about.”
Southgate praised the Americans for the way they pressured his team. The Americans tweaked their normal formations in the flow of the game, flaring players into unexpected areas on both offense and defense, forcing England to react and adjust.
“I think we’re not really afraid of playing against top tier teams, and I think it works in our favor if people think that we’re underdogs going into games because then they might take us lightly or something,” McKennie said. “I think we surprise them every time.”
The United States needed confident performances all over the field, and the players mostly delivered. McKennie, in particular, was dynamic, causing persistent problems for the England defense. In the 26th minute, he was left open to meet a cross near the penalty spot, but he chipped his shot well clear of the crossbar.
Less than 10 minutes later, a sweet move by McKennie and a sharp combination with Yunus Musah left forward Christian Pulisic with an open look in a pocket of space on the left, just outside the penalty area. He banged a missile of a shot toward goal, but it bounced ferociously off the crossbar, the narrowest miss of the game.
“It shows we can go toe to toe with some of the best teams in the world,” midfielder Brenden Aaronson said.
A little more than an hour into the match, the coaches started tinkering. Southgate could call on Premier League stars like midfielder Jordan Henderson and forward Jack Grealish to change the vibe of his flagging team, which by then had surrendered control of the flow of the game to the younger Americans. Berhalter countered a bit later with his own attacking options, midfielder Aaronson and forward Gio Reyna.
But the stalemate continued to the final whistle, when the Americans were met with appreciative applause, and the England players were greeted by a cloud of boos from their end.