The Commanders’ international players are all about the World Cup

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In late November, when the United States and England played out a goalless draw in the World Cup group stage, several commanders in Washington suddenly began to care about soccer.

Although the team is made up of men between the ages of 22 and 32—a key demographic fueling soccer’s rise in popularity in the United States—only a handful of players care for the sport. Televisions in Washington’s locker rooms rarely show soccer games, and most players aren’t following the World Cup. A few soccer fans on Commanders watch games on their phones or in the equipment room, where TVs always seem to be showing a game.

But on that November afternoon, some teammates celebrated the draw by teasing defensive end Efe Obada, who was born in Nigeria and raised in England. Defensive linemen Jonathan Allen and Casey Tohl were reportedly among the players who spent the day chanting, “America! America!”

“They’re like: ‘Oh, this is our fifth game! Imagine if we cared. [soccer]!’ Abda said.

“Just like Americans,” said David Bada, who was born and raised in Germany. If America had actually won, he quipped, Allen and Tohl would have draped the entire building in American flags.

Despite the old joke — that soccer is and always will be America’s sport of the future — a growing body of evidence suggests the sport is gaining momentum here. Data points include attendance, TV ratings, U.S.-born players overseas and even the popularity of the TV show “Ted Lasso” and the podcast “Man in Blazers.” The United States was one of the top ticket-selling countries for this year’s World Cup, and will co-host the next one in 2026 with Canada and Mexico, according to a FIFA official. (Concerns about FedEx Field helped torpedo Washington’s bid as one of 16 host cities. Instead, 11 other NFL stadiums will host games in the United States.)

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It’s (another) big moment for American soccer. Men in blazers are in for it.

Perhaps the Commanders are at the forefront of the NFL’s embrace of football. They play in one of the most avid soccer markets in the country and have an international roster. Team president Jason Wright is a Liverpool fan. And this season, the Commanders have dipped into the local soccer scene. At training camp, the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League visited practice and had a field goal kicking contest with kicker Joey Slay and punter Tracey. In October, the team hosted DC United, coached by former England star player Wayne Rooney.

But Bada and Obda were among the few teammates who recognized Rooney, whom Bada described as “mind-blowing.”

“I don’t know much about basketball, but I know some players, like at least the big ones: LeBron James, Michael Jordan,” he said. “But they don’t know anything about football. It’s crazy.”

During a visit to D.C. United, the team gave a jersey to star wide receiver Terry McLaren. He appreciated the gesture but did not follow the sport beyond occasionally playing the soccer video game FIFA. He said he never watched a single World Cup match and never played football growing up.

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“A lot of running,” McLaren said. “I really don’t like to run around a lot when I don’t have to.”

One of the only American-born players on the Commanders who loves football is offensive lineman Saadiq Charles. As a child, he enjoyed it because, unlike his youth soccer league, soccer did not have a weight limit for touching the ball. Charles played forward and goalie on the travel team until high school. But then his football prospects brightened, and his mother encouraged him to focus on a more lucrative option.

A reporter asked Charles if he wished he had stuck with football. Charles gave an incredulous look. The 23-year-old, in the third year of a four-year rookie contract, has a base salary ($895,000) that is more than double the base salary of a senior Major League Soccer player ($438,728).

Although Charles doesn’t watch as much soccer as he used to — he once followed the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and the Champions League — he still plays FIFA and regularly checks up on his favorite players, including Kylian Mbappé. And Cristiano Ronaldo. He has caught some World Cup games, including the goalless draw between Mexico and Poland and the 1-1 draw between the United States and Wales.

“America should have applauded Wales,” he noted. “They suck.”

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The closest thing to football’s nerve center in the locker room is a bank of stalls in a far corner, where Slay, Obda and Bada have chatted this season. In September, Salai mocked Obada’s favorite player (Ronaldo) and said he preferred Brazilian legend Ronaldinho. Obada accused Salah of not supporting a player just because everyone else did, and Salah replied that Ronaldo was selfish – and with Manchester United, he was “doo-doo”.

One day, when Obada was explaining his soccer passions—Nigeria first, England second—Slaiy said: “Who’s your favorite non-I-was-born-and-raised-there team?”

“Whatever football team pays me,” Obada quipped.

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During the early stages of the tournament, Bada watched most of the games at home or on his phone at the facility. But for Germany’s second game – a 1-1 draw with Spain – he went to a bar with some friends from the German army who are stationed in the US.

Last Thursday, Bada was sitting at his locker watching Germany defeat Costa Rica, when he switched to a match between Japan and Spain. He saw that Japan was ahead, which would knock Germany out of the tournament, and shouted, “No way!”

By the following week, both Germany and the U.S. were eliminated, and Obda was the only player in the locker room whose team survived. When asked if he would do the same to his teammates as they did to him, he smiled.

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