The USA started strong but gradually succumbed to the pressure of Wales in the second half and had to settle for a 1-1 draw. The result was two points squandered for the U.S. team and it drastically hurt the team’s chances to advance out of the group stages.
The first half of the game saw the United States control possession, limit the number of Wales opportunities, and score the first goal of the game on a lovely move up the middle of the field that ended with Christian Pulisic feeding Tim Weah for the opening goal.
The second half was the exact opposite. As much as the USA controlled the game in the first half, Wales controlled the game in the second half. Matt Turner was forced to make a save. The U.S. couldn’t keep the ball. Eventually Wales found their breakthrough after Gareth Bale converted a penalty after he was fouled by Walker Zimmerman in the 82nd minute. Zimmerman had been playing well up to that point but lost his composure with Bale still in front of him ahead of the goal.
The final eight minutes plus nearly 10 minutes of stoppage time saw the Americans return to having the better of chances, but a smart and underrated play came in stoppage time when Kellyn Acosta tactically fouled Bale to prevent a 40-yard attempt on goal with Turner pulled far out of goal.
So here are some thoughts on the game.
Lacked killer instinct
The U.S. team’s attacking and possession numbers flattered them. For all of the slick passing (most notably between Yunus Musah, Weston McKennie and Sergino Dest), the USA scored on its only shot on target. The number of truly dangerous chances that the team created were minimal. Josh Sargent had the best chance outside of the goal but his header from close range from a narrow missed the near post.
But far too often the final pass, typically a cross, was not able to connect with Sargent or whomever was the most well-positioned attacker. On top of this, shots from distance never tested goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and the best moment from the Nottingham Forest goalkeeper came when he had to prevent an own goal in the first half.
If the USA is to have any success in this tournament, it needs to be more clinical and ruthless with its chances.
Even when Wales raised its game in the second half, the Americans had a decent number of counterattacking opportunities with strong numerical advantages. But not only did the they fail to score, they failed to even come close.
Adams and Robinson impress the most
The two best performances in the game over the course of the 90 minutes came from Tyler Adams and Antonee Robinson.
Adams was the best player on the field and will be the cornerstone of this team for many years to come. His numbers in this game were fantastic. He completed 62/69 of his passes, including 4/5 in long balls. He was successful in 5/6 of his tackles, 6/9 of his ground duels, and 2/3 of his aerials. Above it all, he covered 8 miles in the game and continued to be sharp later in the game at a time when his teammates were all fading.
He is the team’s most indispensable player as no one else can come close to replicating what he can do. Adams was a smart choice for the team’s captain.
Meanwhile, Robinson at left back brings an incredible amount of athleticism to the position. Like Adams, he is particularly dangerous late in the game because he has stamina to continue to run at tired defenders. The question for Robinson is his crossing. With better crossing, he would be on another level, but he is still good for creating multiple chances every game and this game was no exception.
Set pieces are a huge concern
The U.S. team struggled throughout World Cup qualifying in creating dangerous chances from set piece deliveries. In this game, these struggles continued, and the U.S. team never once looked threatening off corners or free kicks.
The problems for the lack of set piece danger are on two ends – the deliveries and the targets.
For the deliveries, Pulisic has not produced much over the past few years by way of sending dangerous free kicks or corner kicks into the box. Against Wales, history repeated itself. Pulisic’s first few attempts from the corner either didn’t get beyond the first defender or sailed over the main group of U.S. targets in the box.
Unfortunately for Berhalter, the alternatives are also either unconvincing, not fit, or are still bench options. Gio Reyna sat out the game against Wales after Berhalter said the Borussia Dortmund playmaker had muscle tightness in a scrimmage on Thursday. Reyna is obviously a solid alternative. Dest also has the ability to take free kicks, but he was passed over for Pulisic. Brenden Aaronson takes some of the corners for Leeds United. Kellyn Acosta also is someone who has done well but, like Aaronson, was passed over late in the game as the team continued to have Pulisic take the set pieces.
The number of set piece targets in the box is perhaps an even bigger concern. In the starting lineup, only Zimmerman and McKennie could be considered top threats while Sargent has also had some success getting on the end of deliveries. The problem, however, is that squad rotation could force Berhalter to remove McKennie and possibly Sargent.
The U.S. team is at a big disadvantage in terms of its struggles to be dangerous from set pieces. In the World Cup, the margin between success and failure is extremely narrow. It is how the U.S. team has pulled off key results in its history (Eric Wynalda’s free kick against Switzerland in the 1994 opener, John O’Brien’s goal after a corner kick to set the tone for the win over Portugal in 2002, Graham Zusi’s corner to set up the famous John Brooks winner against Ghana in 2014).
After the game, Berhalter said the U.S. team left it all out on the field and he was right. Most of the U.S. players resembled soldiers coming off a grueling battlefield. Pulisic and Musah were limping. McKennie, who missed the last three weeks with Juventus, had to come off at the hour mark and looked beat up.
None of this bodes well for a quick turnaround on Friday to face an English team that enjoyed a cakewalk in a 6-2 win over Iran earlier in the day.
Berhalter is going to have to make some tough decisions and the medical reports on Tuesday and Wednesday will play a big role in how he shapes his lineup. McKennie seems like a stretch to start and he might be a player the team wants to have in better shape to face Iran.
The USA is unlikely to have any sort of possession edge against England and Aaronson might be better in this game to spring counterattacks. But the same questions will also be asked of Musah, Weah, Pulisic and Sargent.
The big question will come down to Reyna, who was held out against Wales. He has struggled badly with injuries for the last 15 months but has been in much better shape over the past four weeks. The tone regarding the “tightness” that kept him out against Wales seemed minor and Reyna himself even said he was at 100%.
Advancing will certainly come down to beating Iran next week. An upset win is unlikely but a draw against England would be a big step forward for the U.S. team’s chances as it would likely mean the U.S. team doesn’t need any help in addition to beating Iran.
But how Berhalter handles the physical beating the U.S. team took against Wales will be critical against England.
A big learning lesson in maturity
The U.S. team has undergone a massive rebuild over the past four years. Very few of the players from any previous cycle remain in the current pool of players. The U.S. has an extremely young World Cup team as 14 of the team’s 23 field players are still yet to even turn 25.
But looking at the age breakdown of the entire roster only tells part of the story. With an expanded 26-player roster, many teams brought young players along simply to get experience. For the U.S. team, young players are all expected to play key roles.
In Berhalter’s starting lineup against Wales, the entire midfield and front line are still short of their 25th birthday. At the outside back positions, Dest is just 22 while Robinson is the old man at 25. Only in central defense and at goalkeeper is there an older presence.
While many of these young players in the midfield and the attack have played in huge club soccer games, international soccer at the highest levels is a different beast and the World Cup often is the most desperate soccer the game can offer. That’s how Saudi Arabia can upset Argentina, or Italy can go from European champions to failing to qualify for the World Cup inside of a year. The margin is extremely thin.
Failing to win the game stung for the American players but it wouldn’t surprise me if, in the years ahead, it served as a valuable lesson about how to close out wins, how to take advantage of limited chances, how to react when your opponent is motivated in raising its game, and how not to concede possession. Scoring early and hoping to hold onto a 1-0 lead is very, very difficult and only the great Italian teams of the past were able to do it with regularity.
The USA had a front row seat in seeing how a proud but desperate opponent can find another level. If anything, the U.S. team will be more prepared to handle these situations in the future and a team with most of the same group of players, just a few years older, walks away with a win.
Brad Smith/ISI Photos