In late 2018, upon his appointment as U.S. men’s national soccer team coach, Gregg Berhalter sought input from a number of figures in American circles. The first call outside his bubble was to English counterpart Gareth Southgate.
Late this year, Berhalter and his young squad will have an opportunity to gauge their progress against Southgate and England on soccer’s greatest stage, the World Cup.
In a draw conducted by FIFA on Friday, both teams landed in Group B, setting up a high-profile clash in Qatar on Nov. 25, the day after Thanksgiving.
The Americans, who qualified Wednesday for the tournament after missing the 2018 spectacle in Russia, will open Nov. 21 against a European playoff winner, possibly Ukraine, and finish against Iran on Nov. 29.
The middle match, though, is the marquee affair because of U.S. soccer’s deep ties to the English game. Berhalter’s relationship with Southgate is an extension of it.
“I saw a lot of similarities between the team he took over and the team we took over,” Berhalter said in a video call with reporters. “My first trip over [to Europe as U.S. coach], we met and stayed in touch. I consider him an excellent coach and have a lot of respect for what he’s done with the program.”
Southgate told BBC: “I know Gregg Berhalter quite well. We’ve met a few times and had long chats about things, in fact, only a couple of weeks ago. We were smiling at the end” of the draw.
Southgate said the U.S. team has “some very good players, and we know what they could be capable of as a nation.”
Many U.S. players are employed by English clubs, including forward Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), goalkeeper Zack Steffen (Manchester City) and British-born left back Antonee Robinson (Fulham). Forward Gio Reyna, who plays in Germany, was born in England when his father, former U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, was employed by Sunderland. Midfielder Yunus Musah represented England’s youth national teams before committing to the U.S. program last year.
Pulisic said the first call he received after the U.S.-England pairing was announced was from Chelsea teammate Mason Mount, a longtime friend and an attacker on the English national team.
“We’re already talking, excited, looking forward to the game,” Pulisic said. “Playing England in a World Cup just makes me smile. I am just excited for it. I think we all are. Just counting down the days, really.”
The teams collided in the 2010 World Cup group stage in South Africa, settling for a 1-1 draw. The Americans ended up winning the group before losing to Ghana in the round of 16.
“It’s not taking anything away from any of the quality — they still have a ton of quality, they’re still a really well-coached team and they’re still a very good team — but it does help somewhat you’re really familiar with them,” Berhalter said.
U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams, who plays in the German Bundesliga, said: “I was one of those kids growing up watching the Premier League, watching Arsenal every weekend. … To play against England, to play against such a [famous] side with so many big players, talented players, these are the games you want to be a part of.”
Though fifth-ranked England is a trophy contender, the No. 15 United States dodged a heavier task by avoiding No. 1 Brazil; defending champion France; and Argentina, which, led by Lionel Messi, is unbeaten in 31 straight.
While the meeting with England will gain the most attention, the other matches probably will determine whether the United States finishes in the top two and advances to the round of 16.
Iran, ranked 21st, sailed through Asian qualifying with an 8-1-1 record but has never made it out of the group stage in five previous World Cups.
In a politically charged match at the 1998 World Cup in France, the Iranians defeated the United States, 2-1 — one of only two meetings between the countries. The other was in 2000.
“Those are the tricky games in tournaments like this,” midfielder Weston McKennie said of facing an unfamiliar foe.
The third U.S. opponent will not be determined until June in a three-team playoff that was postponed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The Ukrainians will visit Scotland, with the winner playing at Wales for a World Cup berth.
“If the people of Ukraine can get some hope by their team playing in the World Cup, it’s amazing,” Berhalter said. “It will be more of a celebration in my eyes than political ramifications. We’re all pulling for Ukraine. We’re all behind them. We’re all supporting them.”
Ukraine last qualified in 2006, reaching the quarterfinals in Germany. Wales last appeared in 1958, and Scotland hasn’t advanced since 1998.
Finishing first or second would set up a knockout-stage match against a team from Group A, which features Qatar, Netherlands, Ecuador and African champion Senegal.
Though excited with the pairings, Berhalter wasn’t thrilled with being placed in Group A or B, which means his team will play on the first day of the tournament — just seven days after players are released by their clubs.
He is accustomed to it, having had gathered his team on short notice for three games in a seven-day window throughout qualifying.
“It’s challenging,” he said. “It does make a difference.”
The U.S. team’s Concacaf rivals face more difficult roads. Mexico is in Group C with Argentina, Poland and Saudi Arabia, while Canada, making its first appearance since 1986, will play second-ranked Belgium, 2018 runner-up Croatia and Morocco.
Two other World Cup slots must be decided by playoffs in June: Costa Rica or New Zealand, and Peru, Australia or United Arab Emirates.
The draw results
Group A: Qatar, Ecuador, Senegal, Netherlands.
Group B: England, Iran, United States, playoff winner*.
Group C: Argentina, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Poland.
Group D: France, playoff winner**, Denmark, Tunisia.
Group E: Spain, playoff winner***, Germany, Japan.
Group F: Belgium, Canada, Morocco, Croatia.
Group G: Brazil, Serbia, Switzerland, Cameroon.
Group H: Portugal, Ghana, Uruguay, South Korea.
*Wales, Scotland or Ukraine
**Australia, United Arab Emirates or Peru
***Costa Rica or New Zealand