The USMNT celebrates Tim Weah’s goal during the group stage opener at the World Cup in Qatar. Image: Getty Images
It took USMNT fans some cognitive dissonance ahead of this World Cup to ignore the fact that they showed up with the most inexperienced roster possible. Only Deandre Yedlin has been on a World Cup squad before, and he’s barely close to the top 11. There’s also a manager who’s doing this for the first time, so he’ll be learning on the job too (although he won’t should). He’ll never be allowed to do the job again if he continues to bring in Jordan Morris in place of Gio Reyna, but we’ll get to that while I swing a mace over my head).
This means that they can look like anything in the blink of an eye. They can play a first half where they appear balanced, controlled and confident. what they did While Wales usually always give an opponent some room to find their rhythm because they only want to defend and then counter, the USA have found more gears in the engine than Wales probably wanted. They spent a lot of time groping the Welsh defense and moving the ball from side to side but they were able to get going as space opened up. Weston McKennie moved wide to the right to both support Sergino Dest and allow Tim Weah to run behind the defensive line (although he should have done so a little more). Christian Pulisic found openings in front of the full-back and behind the Welsh midfield. He bonded with Musah and Antonee Robinson and created small openings for all of them.
What USA did really well was hit straight at Gareth Bale and Daniel James up front and some midfielder from Wales. The ball flipped right back over USA to try again. Bale can’t really beat a defense with pace anymore, and while James can, so is he…how shall I put it? …talentless. The US didn’t have to worry about being beaten on the turn or by long balls as they cleaned up. And they did. Wales could only clear the ball and put it back up to defend.
And they expertly sucked Wales dry just enough to do this:
G/O Media may receive a commission
Sargent to Pulisic to Weah and take your pick. One wondered what the USA could have done if they had moved the ball faster more often, but having it under total control was hardly a bad thing. Sure they could have played more balls over the top to Weah or attempted quicker changes, but a 1-0 lead at half-time without a shot on target or even close, with Gareth Bale just a rumor, is all you do. d ask.
But then there are still 45 minutes.
In a vacuum, wanting to counterattack as Wales look for an equalizer is an excellent plan. But it’s an excellent plan for the last 10-15 minutes, not the whole half. And what USA lacks, which Musah or Adams or Reyna could one day become but aren’t now, is that midfielder who decides and enforces what pace is needed. In the second half, the USA needed the proverbial man to ‘put his foot on the ball’ and take the breath out as the Welsh pressure mounted. Someone who forces the rest of the team to play the ball around, be the outlet for the growing fear, and calm things down. Sure there were openings for counters, but you have to pick them when they’re obvious. The US was sometimes in a hurry to get on the counter when it wasn’t on sale. Just keep at it. The USA don’t have a midfielder at home who could do that service unless they can somehow age Michael Bradley or Maurice Edu by 10 years. That’s what happens when you bring a team full of kids to this tournament.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t any windows, and USA just picked the wrong pass too many times or missed the right one just enough not to finish the game. At this level, there’s no such thing as an unlimited supply of good looks in the break you’re getting. You have to make the right decision whether to cross over the six-yard box or go for the pullback. You need to connect. It only takes one to complete a match like this, but a team must make this one from a limited supply.
All in all, the US still had Wales basically at arm’s length. Despite having plenty of possession, the Dragons only created two chances from the same corner, with Matt Turner brilliantly saving from Ben Davies and the ensuing corner being headed by Kieffer Moore as Turner also opted for what appeared to be a foray into goalkeeping so far in the tournament be contagious. That was in the 64th minute. Wales didn’t have another chance…until…
There is no reason for Walker Zimmerman to take on this challenge. Bale has his back to goal and is reserved. But this is Zimmerman’s biggest game of his life, on a stage he’s never seen before. The chemistry is there to do something rash, and voila. It’s hard to get mad at him for that because that’s how players learn, but this is the most frustrating time to learn a lesson. The US also fell asleep at the throw-in, which is what an inexperienced, tiring team does.
Yes, USA should have played more against Wales in the second half. They dropped their lines and the Welsh midfield had more time to pass balls to Moore, where they had a tug in the ass every time they made their first touch in the first half. Moore could then be a focal point to get Wales on the field and attack. Has the US run out of energy? Young players tend to be full of nervous energy, which is the most tiring. There’s no other reason why this team should be out of gas after an hour.
What now? It feels like this group will boil down to how badly either Wales or the USA or both can beat Iran on goal difference. It’s hard to imagine how USA can put England under pressure for 90 minutes after letting a rather limited Welsh side grow quite big in just 45 minutes. England will leave more room for counterattacks, but you still have to defend first. England has so many guns from so many angles.
It’s barely over. It’s just going to be a winding road. But the USMNT has never known it any other way.