DOHA, Qatar – Had things gone a little differently, four Americans could be playing for England on Friday night rather than trying to beat them.
Yunus Musah, Antonee Robinson, Cameron Carter-Vickers and Gio Reyna were all either born in England or grew up there, making them eligible to represent the Three Lions. But each, for different reasons, chose to play for the United States.
“You’ve just got to go where you feel at home,” said Robinson, who has lived his entire life in England but was eligible to play for the USMNT because his father grew up in the United States.
“I never got called up for England. … So to get called up for the US made me feel 10 feet tall. Grew my confidence a lot,” Robinson said. “When I got the call from the men’s national team, it was a no-brainer to me. They inspired that hope in me so, yeah, it was a no-brainer.”
Like the country they represent, the USMNT has always been a melting pot. There are children of immigrants and those whose families have been in the United States for generations. Some know nothing but the United States while others were born or grew up in other countries. Some have been citizens since birth while others have parents, or grandparents, who provided the connection.
No matter how they came to be American, however, they are all equally red, white and blue.
“I talked about the young player pools and how it is a tight-knit group and how it is a brotherhood. When guys get back in camp, it’s like they’re back with their family. That went a long way with a lot of the guys,” US coach Gregg Berhalter said of the recruiting pitch he made to players eligible to represent multiple countries.
“To be part of something special, for it not just to be a profession or for us not to be mercenaries, for us to be enjoying it and absolutely honored to be representing our country, was a big selling point.”
A player’s ties to another country are usually more of a curiosity, another detail that helps provide a fuller picture of who they are as a person and player. But for Musah, Robinson, Carter-Vickers and Reyna, their connections to England became of far greater interest after the World Cup draw, when England and the USMNT both wound up in Group B.
“That was so good,” Musah said, grinning. “That will be a very special game for me.”
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Musah was on Gareth Southgate’s radar, having come up through Arsenal’s academy and represented England’s youth teams at almost every level. But he didn’t hear of Southgate’s interest until after the fact, while Berhalter was in frequent contact with him and his family after Musah’s move to Spain to play at Valencia.
Although Musah said he was initially conflicted when choosing between countries – he was also eligible to play for Italy and Ghana – because of what England had given his family, ultimately he simply felt more comfortable with the USMNT.
“I’ve never looked back,” he said. “I’ve always been really happy with my decision.”
Robinson played at Everton’s academy and remembers the disappointment of watching his teammates get called up for England’s youth teams when he, struggling with injuries, did not. The confidence he got from the USMNT’s interest in him, coupled with finally being healthy, had a profound impact on his game, and Robinson wound up being named Everton’s U-18 player of the year.
The faith the USMNT showed in him, and England did not, has not been forgotten.
“I want to win every game, but I want to beat England more than anyone, I think,” Robinson said.
Reyna’s father, Claudio, was playing at Sunderland when he was born, and he spent the first four years of his life in England. (He even had a Manchester accent for a time.) But the son of the longtime USMNT captain said he’s never considered himself anything but American, and never even entertained the thought of playing for England.
Or Argentina or Portugal, where he also had eligibility.
“My focus is fully on the USA,” said Reyna. “The connection with England is always going to be there because I was born there but, other than that, it’s nothing really else.”
Carter-Vickers never got any call-ups from England but isn’t certain it would have made a difference in the jersey he wears now, anyway. His father, Howard Carter, played on LSU’s 1981 Final Four team, and was the biggest influence on his son’s interest in sports.
Other family members might have tried to sway him, however, if their rooting interest Friday is any indication.
“My family, half want us to win,” Carter-Vickers said, “and half want England to win.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: USMNT World Cup match vs. England has extra weight for some players