CINCINNATI—As much as American soccer players want wins, they crave respect.
During a climb from soccer obscurity that began four decades ago, the US has achieved milestone after milestone but carries its poor pedigree like a millstone as it tries to force its way into the world’s elite.
Jubilant fans chanted “Dos a Cero!” and American players raised their arms in triumph over and over after Friday night’s 2-0 win over Mexico in a World Cup qualifier.
The US beat El Tri three times in a calendar year for the first time since the rivalry began in 1937 and outshot them 18-8.
And the Americans did it three days after Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa told the TUDN Network: “Mexico is the mirror in which the United States wants to see itself.”
Like on a high school team—much of the US player pool is not far removed from SAT years—the perceived disparagement became a rallying cry. When Christian Pulisic headed in the first goal in the 74th minute, he ran toward the stands, pulled up his jersey and revealed a message scrawled on his undershirt: “Man in the mirror.”
Tim Weah said he and defender DeAndre Yedlin asked the equipment managers to create Pulisic’s shirt “just to send a message.”
“Before the game, Mexico was talking a lot of smack,” Weah said. “To shut them up, we have to continue to win games, continue to beat them. That’s the only way we’re going to earn their respect and get the world’s respect.”
The US didn’t appear at the World Cup between 1950 and 1990, and then reached soccer’s showcase seven straight times. But it got past the round of 16 just once—beating Mexico, 2-0, in 2002′s second round.
The failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup tarnished a generation of players and scarred a large percentage of the fan base.
Pulisic is one of the few holdovers from the last cycle. At age 23, he is the top player and surrounded by the youngest major national team across Europe and the Americas. His teammates include Weston McKennie (23), Tyler Adams (22), Sergiño Dest and Weah (21), Gio Reyna (19) and Yunus Musah (18). The average age of the starting lineup in last month’s win over Costa Rica was 22 years, 229 days.
“That’s basically unheard of in international football,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said. “If you go look at the Germanys, the Frances, the Brazils, they’re basically playing 28-year-old, 29-year-old teams.”
Twelve Americans are on Champions League clubs this season: Pulisic (defending champion Chelsea), Adams (Leipzig), Dest (Barcelona), McKennie (Juventus), Reyna (Dortmund), Weah (Lille), Brenden Aaronson (Salzburg), Zack Steffen (Manchester City), John Brooks (Wolfsburg) and Jordan Pefok (Young Boys), plus Owen Otasowie (Club Brugge) and Romain Gall (Malmö).
And American managers in Europe remain a rarity, with Jesse Marsch (Leipzig), David Wagner (Young Boys) and Pellegrino Matarazzo (Stuttgart) the most notable these days on a career trek embarked by Berhalter with Hammarby and Bob Bradley with Egypt, Stabaek, Le Havre and Swansea.
Pulisic, usually guarded in his comments, tried to downplay his message: “I don’t need to like speak on it too much. It’s not a big thing.” He joked that “I actually wrote it in a mirror” and shook his right hand as if scribbling, then quickly added: “No, I’m kidding” as he smiled.
“To now win three in a row is obviously amazing,” Pulisic said, “but that doesn’t mean that it’s time to be complacent and time to think oh, we’re the best around. … We want to continue to prove what this team is about and hopefully start to show the world what this national team is capable of.”
Image courtesy of AP