There will be lessons ahead aplenty for this young United States team, almost completely turned over from its last World Cup appearance more than eight years ago. None perhaps will be more important than the heavy take-away from Monday’s 1-1 draw with Wales.
Being the spunky, aggressive side that starts bravely and takes a lead in a World Cup match is one thing. Finding the right combination of mettle and problem-solving composure in holding a lead is something completely different.
Strong start by US in first half
An impressive first half by the United States melted away into a tense exercise in hanging on, probably a fitting introduction to the crushing pressure of a World Cup. The premier difference makers – Christian Pulisic and Gareth Bale – made the difference with a goal or in the assist of one on either side of halftime.
The United States, under pressure to perform after missing out four years ago, could be forgiven for shuffling a bit nervously into the tournament. But there they were, Gregg Berhalter’s young men, looking the more poised team, managing matters courageously, calmly assured against the older Welsh side.
While the Americans could manufacture only a few early opportunities on goal before the break, they were always in control ahead of intermission. Pulisic’s 36th minute burst through midfield led to Timothy Weah’s classy finish, putting their side ahead.
Second half for United States-Wales was a different story
If only it had lasted more than a half.
Wales was in charge after the intermission, solving abundant midfield issues by going more direct, playing over and around that Tyler Adams-led U.S. midfield. Walker Zimmerman was clumsy into a late challenge against the wily Bale, who saw the tackle coming and beat the U.S. center back to the point of impact. From there, Bale was pinpoint perfect with his penalty kick, targeted with intent, no sign that the weight of a nation rested on one swing of his boot.
It all sets up a massive Black Friday clash with England, now with perhaps even more on the line today than yesterday. But before we get too far into what it all means for Qatar 2022, a closer look at Monday’s opener.
What went right
Berhalter did roll the dice on his starters, where a striker who was barely in the picture for most of 2022 started; Josh Sargent got the call ahead of Jesus Ferreira, who has manned the “No. 9” role for most of the year.
Berhalter answered the center back question – who would partner Zimmerman? – with the placement of Tim Ream, preferred presumably for his familiarity with Welsh players and his good run recently with Fulham.
Sargent’s touches were limited, but he did play a critical part in the goal. As for Ream, he might have been the best U.S. player but for the busy, ever-present Adams directly in front of him. The 23-year-old Leeds United midfielder was rangy, tough in the tackle and always in the right places to provide midfield cover.
Midfield gave US advantage over Wales
Mobility was always going to be a strong point for the young U.S. midfield. Indeed, Adams, Yunus Musah and Weston McKennie were in command in the middle third for the opening 45 minutes. They had help from Pulisic, dropping in from the left, and from Sergiño Dest, tilting into the midfield from his right back spot.
Pulisic had perhaps worried the Welsh defense with busy movement and fashioning of a few set pieces through the first half hour, but he wasn’t exactly terrorizing the back line. That changed with a 36th minute game-changing surge through midfield. Sharp holdup play from Sargent helped set the table for Pulisic, who spotted Weah’s well-angled run from the right and led his winger with a perfectly weighted ball. The 22-year-old Lille attacker may never score a more important goal.
Without the ball, the United States was equally capable. Bale was mostly a bystander, as Wales dropped its lines of confrontation, OK with conceding possession – pretty much as everyone expected. The United States pressed only moderately, as Wales struggled to play through the midfield traps.
What went wrong
This is an experienced Welsh squad that was bound to improve over its tepid opening half, a team that knows how to grab results in close matches. Which is exactly what happened.
Not everything had gone well in the first 45 for Berhalter’s boys. A few instances of being the impatient, young American eager beavers can more or less be forgiven. Still, early yellow cards to Dest and McKennie may prove costly should either player collect a second Friday against England – sidelining them with a one game suspension, subtracting availability in a group closer against Iran that could potentially mean everything.
Ream and Kellyn Acosta picked up yellow cards after intermission, but both were tactical in nature, and almost certainly the right decisions.
England will surely note that Wales playing direct after halftime seemed to bother the United States. Berhalter admitted as much late into the evening in his post-game comments. Zimmerman, Ream and their outside backs won their share of those direct launches. But so did 6-foot-5 forward Kieffer Moore, whose halftime introduction changed the game in Welsh favor as much as anything else. Also assisting the Wales cause: they were often quicker to the second balls.
In the end, U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner didn’t need to be special very often, his 64th minute save off a diving header from Ben Davies was surely his best moment. But the Arsenal ‘keeper didn’t always look comfortable in traffic, which could also be an issue Friday. Harry Kane, so competent in the air, will be lurking.
Pulisic had his moments, but also spent a lot of time in his World Cup debut complaining about physical treatment. Going forward he’ll need to understand that he isn’t just one of the targets; he is certainly the target. Better to save the energy. Or better yet, turn it to vengeful action.
To be sure, he took a beating – so we’ll see how quickly he can recover. Musah also looked a bit bedraggled as he left in the 74th minute.
Finally, improving set piece service and end product (never very effective in qualifying) was a U.S. goal for this tournament. Let’s just say there’s still work to be done.
Brenden Aaronson got into the game. Looked up for it, too, ever eager to turn and run at the Welsh back line. So did forwards Haji Wright and Jordan Morris, as Berhalter summoned fresh attackers to dash about in a match that opening up late. But you know who, oddly enough, didn’t make the field? Gio Reyna, who may be the most talented U.S. player all things considered. Berhalter admitted post-match that he made a late decision not to play Reyna due to a tightness in the midfielder’s leg.
Early in his national team career, Acosta was partially responsible as the United States conceded a counterattack goal – one perhaps avoidable had Acosta been tougher in the tackle, even taking a yellow card to prevent the breakout. Lesson learned, for sure. Because late in Monday’s match, with the U.S. back line scrambling and Turner out of position, Bale was lining up for a long-range effort. And who would bet against the Welsh talisman in this moment? Acosta, however, was having none of it. He wrapped up Bale, took his yellow card with a quick wave and … again, he had learned the lesson.
Photo credit: IMAGO / Sports Press Photo
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