England transformed soccer in America. Now its players stand in USA’s way
When the US meet England on Friday night, they will effectively be facing one of the reasons for the sport’s rising profile back home
USA captain Tyler Adams was a 13-year-old New York Red Bulls academy prospect in 2012 when NBC became the exclusive US media rights-holder for the Premier League in a deal that has since been credited with propelling soccer to new heights of popularity in the United States.
Until then, nearly all English league matches were carried on Fox Soccer, a pay channel buried deep down the cable listings, inevitably limiting the sport’s mainstream exposure. NBC’s deal for both the English- and Spanish-language media rights to all 380 Premier League fixtures – for a then-bargain fee of $250m over three years that has since been renewed for $2.7bn over the next six – established soccer in the American sports firmament like never before by making matches available on both free-to-air television and NBC’s family of cable networks.
“Growing up, the Premier League was always the dream,” Adams said on Thursday. “I grew up a huge Thierry Henry fan, partially because he played for New York Red Bulls, but also because I watched a lot of Arsenal games as well. I admired him, how he played the game. I think in America, you see a lot of young players tuning into a lot of the Premier League games. They’re on in the mornings, they’re easy to find.”
When the United States meet England in a blockbuster group-stage tie on Friday night at the Al Bayt Stadium, they will effectively be facing one of the reasons for the sport’s rising profile back home. For the 23-year-old Adams, the wider exposure and accessibility of the Premier League only further cultivated a dream that was planted when he joined New York Red Bulls during Henry’s four-year stint in Major League Soccer.
Having forged a reputation as an industrious ball-winning defensive midfielder, Adams moved to NYRB’s sister club RB Leipzig in 2019, making his biggest splash when he fired in the goal that lifted the Bundesliga club into the Champions League semi-finals. When he landed at Leeds United in a $24.2m (£20m) transfer this summer, it fulfilled a lifelong dream that not even his success in Germany could match.
“The Bundesliga wasn’t the biggest thing for me when I was growing up,” he said. “You saw a lot of quality players on the pitch at the same time [in the Premier League], no matter which teams were playing.
“I remember telling my mom at a young age that I wanted to play in England. The culture is not too far off of what America has to offer, so definitely that transition has been a lot easier than playing in Germany. But there’s something special about the Premier League. There always has been and I think there always will be.”
USA coach Gregg Berhalter, who on Monday became the first person to play for and manage an American side at a World Cup, came of age at a time when finding Premier League matches on American television was all but impossible. Only when he was in the Netherlands during the 1990s at the outset of a 15-year playing career in Europe was he exposed to the Premier League on a regular basis.
“I remember when I was in Holland getting home from my games on Saturday watching Match of the Day on BBC, and that was the only real highlights you got,” Berhalter said. “And now, every Saturday morning in America, waking up to watching the Premier League and seeing all the fan festivals they’re having. Everyone now in America seems to have a team that they support.
“It’s an incredible league. We’re really proud to have our players playing in that league. And to me, it’s similar to the NFL and in terms of how dominant it is and how commercial-orientated it is.”
Adams, who is the youngest captain of the 32 squads in Qatar by some distance, is also the youngest player to wear the skipper’s armband for a US team at the World Cup since Walter Bahr in 1950 – a tournament where the Americans famously bucked the odds with a 1-0 upset of England in Belo Horizonte.
As the United States have rebuilt from the wreckage of their catastrophic failure to qualify for the World Cup four years ago, Adams has made no secret of this group’s goal of changing the way the world perceives American soccer. An inspired performance in Friday’s match on the northeast coast of Qatar could go a long way to making it happen.
“It’s a obviously a huge opportunity to fast-track the impact that we can have,” Adams said. “These are the games where the pressure is a privilege to step on the field against some of these guys. We respect them. There’s probably a mutual respect between both teams. And when you get a result in a game like this, people start to respect Americans a little bit more.”
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