Everton-Arsenal will show how far American football has come

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Two English Premier League teams, Arsenal and Everton, will meet to play football in front of an American crowd on Saturday at the M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore as part of a pre-season tour.

This weekend’s friendly will be steeped in red, white and blue – one team’s past filled with American stars, the other’s future including one, and both playing in a Premier League where players and American fans are increasingly common.

Before Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Tyler Adams sparked bidding wars across the Atlantic, Europeans were wary of American footballers.

“Maybe 10 years ago there were one or two (Americans) who came and held on,” said Everton captain Seamus Coleman, who has been with the team since 2009.

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As early as the 1990s, however, Everton regularly featured players from the US men’s national team.

Tim Howard spent a decade with the club from 2006 to 2016 and is the club’s official ambassador to the United States. Although big names such as Landon Donovan, Brian McBride, Joe-Max Moore and Preki have made a name for themselves elsewhere, they have all also had memorable moments wearing blue on Merseyside.

At a time when Americans were taboo, Everton was the American team.

“When you hear stories of so many modern things [American] Everton fans, it’s because of the time I spent there,” Howard said on Thursday during Everton’s open training in Alexandria. “The number of people who say, ‘I became an Everton fan because [of you]’ – it was very special for me.

Frank Lampard, Chelsea’s all-time leading goalscorer who now manages Everton, remembers precisely the doubt that followed Donovan’s arrival at Goodison Park on loan in 2010.

“A lot of people in England, if I’m honest, were like, ‘Oh, let’s see if he can do it in the Premier League,'” Lampard said. “And he was great.”

When asked, Lampard easily brought up the myriad of American Premier League players he remembered: Howard, John Harkes, Ian Feuer, Brad Friedel and more. But Lampard also played and managed through a time of change for the Americans in Europe – they were no longer just odds and ends, but becoming real stars.

Lampard saw this change come during a stint with New York City FC in MLS. While managing Chelsea before his move to Everton, Lampard also experienced the growth of American football first-hand when coaching Pulisic, the USMNT’s biggest young star.

“I love Christian. Great kid. Great talent. It was a joy,” he said. The Chelsea legend also said that over the years he has noticed something different in the players Americans. “They all have a great candidacy, desire, and you know what I found? Politeness, real humility. I like that. They work hard.”

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Everton’s current squad has no Americans, but Howard, Lampard and Coleman all say the bond between the United States and the Toffees is both historic and indelible.

On the other side of the pitch on Saturday will be the next in a line of American Premier League goalkeepers – Matt Turner, freshly signed from Arsenal from the New England Revolution. And he doesn’t want to hear any of the American skepticism.

“They wouldn’t have brought me here if they didn’t think I could compete,” Turner said. “So I’m going to take advantage of this pre-season, every opportunity I have to step onto the pitch and play to the best of my abilities.”

Howard said he spoke to Turner throughout the transfer process, saying he saw in him the same hunger and humility that Lampard noticed in American players. Turner called Howard “a huge mentor” and said he knew he was going to have to work for his minutes.

“Matt is no slouch,” Howard said. “He’s the kind of guy who has that mentality. He wants to get in there and fight and figure out what his role is and figure it out.

Turner has his work cut out for him as Arsenal have trusted their No.1 keeper Aaron Ramsdale. But he’s there to compete for a starting role, just like Pulisic and Adams and Brenden Aaronson and Antonee Robinson and Zack Steffen and all the other Americans making a name for themselves in the Premier League.

And while Turner may be the only Yankee on the court, Saturday’s game in front of thousands of American fans is indicative of a bigger trend. As Americans get better at football, American fans are getting more invested in the Premier League. The 2021-22 season was the second most-watched Premier League campaign in the United States, according to NBC Sports.

“With the World Cup coming up in 2026 in the United States, it’s a really exciting time to be an American football player and fan,” Turner said.

But at the end of the day, there’s always that name – English Premier League. Howard knows they will always have something to prove.

“American players will always have to prove their worth because that’s how it’s always been done,” Howard said. “And it will take a long, long time to change that. But slowly but surely it is falling into place.

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