The hotly anticipated post-holiday World Cup matchup between the United States men’s national team and England proved dull only for those who read its score after the fact.
This is not USA wins 0–0, because the U.S. produced the most exciting plays and created the most dangerous chances in the scoreless draw. It was unlucky not to walk away with a win after Weston McKennie skied a half-volley over and Christian Pulisic hit the crossbar in the first half, or to turn the ball in after earning three consecutive corner kicks in the second. In the aftermath England’s players whimpered vaguely about their disappointment and talked up the clean sheet they kept, a result that all-but guarantees their advancement to the knockout round, but the truth is there were periods of the game when the uber-conservative Three Lions lost control of the match, knocked out of the alignment they cling to by the American energy and skill. The young USMNT went toe-to-toe with a tournament favorite, and came out mostly on top.
For the second straight game, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter got his first-half lineup exactly right. The U.S. came out in an unexpected setup with two forwards, looking to play over England’s midfield to the size of Haji Wright or the speed of Tim Weah. England was caught off guard, which made the first 10 minutes an extended feeling-out period, exemplified by center back Harry Maguire’s bafflement on the ball that led to him passing out of bounds while under no pressure.
For a stretch, it seemed like England might solve the problem. Soon enough, Jude Bellingham and Bukayo Saka combined down the left and gifted Harry Kane a shot that deflected off Walker Zimmerman. Kane and Raheem Sterling started receiving more passes between the U.S. midfield and defense. It felt like the Three Lions might have nailed down the variation and could now bring their superior offensive talent to bear.
Instead, the best American players rose to the occasion. Midfielder Tyler Adams won a second-straight fan-voted Man of the Match award. (The official FIFA one went to Christian Pulisic, and was wrong.) Adams was impassable, a one-man no-fly zone in the center of the field, He was Gandalf on the bridge, shouting down the nation of J.R.R. Tolkien. In less than a minute early in the second half, he baited English attacking midfielder Mason Mount into a cheap turnover, then slid in to dispossess Saka in the U.S. box. Mamas, please let your babies grow up to be defensive midfielders.
Mount was a nonpresence until his shot at the end of the half drew a good save out of goalkeeper Matt Turner. Bellingham and Declan Rice, two of the most praised, most sought-after midfielders in the world, were thoroughly outplayed by Adams and his partner Yunus Musah. Turner was confident claiming crosses and untroubled by the shots England took on him. Center backs Tim Ream and Walker Zimmerman were excellent. The U.S. security blankets all held firm.
But Adams’ excellence has become typical. The biggest American differentiator against England was the play of Weston McKennie. McKennie, still gaining fitness after an injury layoff that lasted right into the tournament, was tremendous for 35 minutes against Wales before fading after the U.S. goal in that game. The U.S., not coincidentally, looked great for thirty-five minutes before Wales started to fight its way back in.
Here he played with an absolute glut of confidence, pinballing through the English right-side to create overloads and tracking back diligently to support his defense. His joie de jouer was best exemplified by the viral image of him preparing to take a long throw-in by drying his hands on a pitch-side photographer’s vest. When you’re playing that well, you can ask that guy for forgiveness rather than permission.
McKennie’s excellence in midfield freed Christian Pulisic up to influence the game closer to the English goal. The U.S. found him in more dangerous positions, getting him the ball on the edge of the box rather than just across the halfway line. Pulisic could be far more proactive; it wasn’t until everyone grew tired at the end that he started holding the ball in front of the opposing defense, the least dangerous version of himself. In the first half, he seized his chances, like his narrow miss off the top of the goal.
England only came back into the game after Southgate started making subs, using Jordan Henderson to try to pull the American midfield deeper and Jack Grealish to draw fouls closer to the American box. Berhalter was slow to respond; there was a period during which England might have seized it. But Southgate delayed the insertion of Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford and still didn’t play the likes of Manchester City’s Phil Foden, choosing instead to play it safe to the last and hope it works out, a touchline Neville Chamberlain.
If there’s bad news, it’s that this result has little impact on the Americans’ chances of advancing to the knockout rounds. Iran coming to life in stoppage time to score twice and beat Wales pulled the rug out from under this game, in terms of its impact on the standings. The USMNT’s third and final group stage game is now essentially a knockout match. If the U.S. had beaten England, then it would have just needed a draw to advance. Now it has to win, which is far from guaranteed given how wildly both teams’ forms have swung even just in this tournament. As has often been the case for most of the USMNT’s past year, the most important game is the next one. The only time that hasn’t been true, arguably, was for this game against England. A draw may not have been an ideal result, but this was perhaps the best possible version of that outcome. On Friday, the U.S. showed it could play with anybody. Now it has to show it can beat its next opponent.