The USMNT’s true downfall in World Cup-opening draw with Wales

AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Weary limbs and rueful stares crawled around the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium here in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Just minutes after midnight, proud players offered grudging claps to thousands of supporters. Disappointment trailed them, the U.S. men’s national team, to their locker room after a 1-1 draw with Wales in their 2022 World Cup opener. Head coach Gregg Berhalter could see it etched across their faces.

They were “a bit disappointed” or “really disappointed,” depending on who you asked, because they’d let two colossal points slip away. They’d conceded a late equalizer, via a clumsy tackle and a penalty, that left Group B hanging precariously in the balance.

But the equalizer, cleverly conjured by Gareth Bale, was not the sole source of their frustration. The USMNT’s downfall wasn’t that they gave up a goal; it was that, in an increasingly open second half, they didn’t score more.

“In transition, we had our moments,” defender Tim Ream said, his voice tinged with regret. “And the final pass, in the final third, just wasn't quite there.”

Christian Pulisic and Tim Weah had punctured Wales’ low block after 36 minutes, and forced the Welsh to come out of their shell in the second half. For 45 minutes, they’d sat deep in a 5-3-2 because they feared what young American legs could do to them in an open, scrambled game. The U.S. goal forced them to play that game. And USMNT’s undoing was that they never reminded Wales why the openness had provoked fear in the first place.

Monday was, as soccer so often is, a game of two halves — but not because the U.S. wanted it to be. “Naw, the plan didn't change at halftime,” U.S. midfielder Tyler Adams said. “I think their plan changed at halftime.”

Wales threw on 6-foot-5 striker Kieffer Moore, and targeted him regularly, and supported him in growing numbers. The U.S., Ream said, was “actually prepared for that to happen to start the match,” and handled the adjustment reasonably well. Of course they were going to cede some control of the ball. Of course they were going to have to soak up some pressure. They were also, though, going to get chances to punish Wales on the counter.

And that, precisely, is what they didn’t do.

In some cases, they were unwilling; they opted to maintain control rather than sprint for a second goal. In the 61st minute, for example, Adams cut out a pass and left five Welsh players stuck upfield. The U.S. broke, or could have, 4-v-5, through Yunus Musah and then Pulisic. But Pulisic, rather than attacking Chris Mepham 1-v-1, slowed and turned backward.

USMNT's Christian Pulisic backs off on a run.
USMNT's Christian Pulisic backs off on a run.

Some of the USMNT’s failure on the counter was a simple lack of aggressiveness and willingness. On other occasions, it was decision-making. And a bulk of it lay at the feet of Pulisic, the USMNT’s catalyst and most prominent figure.

Pulisic is excellent when gliding past opponents. He’s capable when darting into the penalty box to finish off counterattacks. But he is not a natural conductor of them. On Monday, time and time again, he was tasked with driving the U.S. forward in transition, and he often couldn’t.

A 66th-minute sequence was particularly notable. Wales pressed. The U.S. skipped a line, and won a second ball, just as any coach would have scripted it. Brenden Aaronson found Pulisic in a gaping pocket of space at midfield, and with Tim Weah streaking in behind the Welsh defense from the right.

The U.S. had plenty of chances to score in their 1-1 draw with Wales.
The U.S. had plenty of chances to score in their 1-1 draw with Wales.

But Pulisic didn’t see him.

Or he couldn’t get his feet right. Either way, he picked the wrong pass, and turned a 3-v-3 into a non-dangerous situation.

Christian Pulisic and the USMNT had their chances moving forward.
Christian Pulisic and the USMNT had their chances moving forward.

Pulisic wasn’t the only culprit; there were others. Yunus Musah failed to pick out Aaronson with acres of space at the top of the box. The eventual cross narrowly avoided Aaronson.

Brendon Aaronson just misses a header in the box.
Brendon Aaronson just misses a header in the box.

But these failures were not any single player’s; they were team-wide.

“We had our opportunities with 5-v-4s and 4-v-3s,” Ream said. “And we've just not quite done enough.”

“We got a little bit sloppy with the ball in the second half,” Berhalter said.

“We didn't score as much as we probably should have,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “And that ended up costing us.”

Their problem, Ream clarified, was “not about seeing the game out.” It was about killing the game off and burying it. They knew that, in all likelihood, they would not be able to keep Wales fully at bay for 90 minutes. “In any of these games, there are gonna be ebbs and flows,” Berhalter said.

Perhaps the failing was also Berhalter’s, then. His triple-substitution after 75 minutes reeked of let’s hold on rather than let’s end this.

But in those 75 minutes, his players had plenty of opportunity to render Bale’s penalty moot.

“To limit them as much as we did, and still come away with only a point — yeah, listen, it's disappointing,” Ream reiterated. “But it's a learning experience, and I think something that all the guys will definitely learn from and improve on.”