AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Weary limbs and sad looks crawled around Ahmad bin Ali Stadium here in the early hours of Tuesday morning. Minutes after midnight, proud players offered reluctant applause to thousands of supporters. Disappointment followed them, the United States Men’s National Team, back to their locker room after a Drawn 1-1 with Wales in their 2022 World Cup opener. Head coach Gregg Berhalter could see it etched in their faces.
They were “a bit disappointed” or “very disappointed”, depending on the interviewee, because they had let two colossal points slip away. They had conceded a late equaliser, via a clumsy tackle and a penalty, which left Group B hanging precariously in the balance.
But the equaliser, cleverly warded off by Gareth Bale, was not the only source of their frustration. The USMNT’s downfall wasn’t that they gave up a goal; it is that, in an increasingly open second half, they did not score more.
“In transition, we had our moments,” said defender Tim Ream, his voice tinged with regret. “And the final pass, in the final third, just wasn’t there.”
Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah broke through Wales’ low block after 36 minutes and forced the Welsh out of their shells in the second half. For 45 minutes they sat deep in a 5-3-2 because they feared what America’s young legs might do to them in an open, scrambled game. The American goal forced them to play this game. And the USMNT’s downfall was that they never reminded Wales why the opener caused the fear in the first place.
Monday was, as football so often is, a two-half game, but not because the United States wanted it. “No, the plan didn’t change at half-time,” USA midfielder Tyler Adams said. “I think their the plan changed at halftime.
Wales launched 6ft5in striker Kieffer Moore, targeted him regularly and backed him in increasing numbers. The United States, Ream said, were “actually prepared for this to happen to start the game” and handled the adjustment reasonably well. Of course, they were going to give up some ball control. Of course, they were going to have to absorb some pressure. However, they were also going to have chances to punish Wales on the counter.
And that is precisely what they did not do.
In some cases, they were unwilling; they opted to stay in control rather than sprint for a second goal. In the 61st minute, for example, Adams cut off a pass and left five Welsh players stuck on the pitch. The United States beat, or could have, 4 to 5, thanks to Yunus Musah and then Pulisic. But Pulisic, rather than attacking Chris Mepham 1v1, slowed down and turned.
Some of the USMNT’s failures on the counter were a simple lack of aggression and willpower. On other occasions, it was decision making. And much of it lay at the feet of Pulisic, the USMNT’s catalyst and most prominent figure.
Pulisic is excellent when sliding past opponents. He is able to rush into the penalty area to complete counterattacks. But he is not a natural conductor. Time and time again on Monday he was tasked with moving the United States forward in transition, and he often failed.
A sequence in the 66th minute was particularly noticed. Wales pressed. USA skipped a line and won a second ball, as any coach would write. Brenden Aaronson found Pulisic in a gaping pocket of space in midfield, and with Tim Weah behind the Welsh defense from the right.
But Pulisic didn’t see it.
Or he couldn’t position himself well. Either way, he picked the wrong pass and turned a 3-on-3 into a non-dangerous situation.
Pulisic wasn’t the only culprit; there were others. Yunus Musah failed to pick Aaronson with acres of space at the top of the box. The eventual cross narrowly avoided Aaronson.
But these failures were not those of a single player; they were team-wide.
“We had our opportunities with 5v4s and 4v3s,” Ream said. “And we just haven’t done enough.”
“We were a bit sloppy with the ball in the second half,” said Berhalter.
“We didn’t score as much as we probably should have,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “And that ended up costing us dearly.”
Their problem, Ream clarified, was “not seeing the game come out”. It was about killing the game and burying it. They knew that in all likelihood they couldn’t keep Wales completely at bay for 90 minutes. “In any of these games there will be ebbs and flows,” Berhalter said.
Perhaps the fault was also Berhalter’s, then. His triple substitution after 75 minutes smelled bad hold on rather than let’s get it over with.
But in those 75 minutes his players had plenty of chances to render Bale’s penalty point moot.
“To limit them as much as we did, and come away with just one point – yeah, listen, that’s disappointing,” Ream reiterated. “But it’s a learning experience, and I think all the guys will definitely learn and improve.”