Sports

The U.S. Played Half an Amazing Game. The Other Half …

The Welsh goal made America’s prospects of advancing in the World Cup way dicier.

Ramsey and Pulisic battle for the ball, with Ramsey in possession, the octagonal grid of a soccer net illustrated in a scrim behind them
Wales’ Aaron Ramsey and USA’s Christian Pulisic at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Monday, in Doha, Qatar.  Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images.

It was half of an ideal start for the U.S. men’s national team.

Playing its first World Cup game in more than eight years against a conservative Wales team, the U.S. took complete control of the game from the opening whistle. It kept the ball buzzing around the edges of Wales’ defensive fortifications, keeping possession for a full two-thirds of the half. It won nearly every loose ball in midfield. It disarmed every Welsh counter before it could even be sprung.

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It tied the game, 1–1. Soccer games are two halves.

Perhaps it should have done more with the 45 minutes in which it was ascendant. There were squandered opportunities, to be sure. Christian Pulisic’s set piece delivery once again failed to produce dangerous moments. Forward Josh Sargent flicked a header off the outside of the post. The amount of Welsh bodies in the box thwarted U.S. efforts; there was always someone to deflect a cross or step in front of a shot. There were times when the pace might have been pushed but possession was recycled again instead. Still, all in all, it felt like a good balance between trying to keep the ball and trying to threaten with it. All that possession took the sting out of Wales; the Americans’ control of the match was the best defense it could ask for against the lethal Welsh counter. Timothy Weah seized a chance set up for him by Pulisic to give the U.S. the lead, running in behind and punching it with his toe between the sliding legs of a few Welsh players like a jab snuck between the opponent’s gloves.

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It was Weah’s first goal of the season for any team. It came at the perfect time.

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The U.S. slacked a little after the goal, but entered halftime with what looked like the perfect foundation for an easy win: Maintain the smothering pressure on the Welsh midfield, pick up another goal in the second half, start getting serious about what you might do in the knockout rounds.

Wales respectfully begged to differ, and managed to change the game through an old and particularly British tactic: by kicking it long to the big man. Wales in the first half paired Bale with speedster Dan James, but his runs rarely troubled the U.S. defense, which consistently beat him to the ball with time to spare. To start the second half, James was removed for 6-foot-5 forward Kieffer Moore, who jogged onto the field roughly like Godzilla taking his first step onto land somewhere outside of Tokyo. Moore was devastatingly effective as a target forward, receiving the ball and using his body to keep the U.S. at bay while support arrived. The American midfield dominance vaporized as Wales went over their heads more and more often. Various Yanks chased the ball deep to provide support but had more trouble digging the ball out of dangerous positions as their legs tired. (Weston McKennie and Yunus Musah, both coming off relatively recent injuries, struggled as the U.S. was overrun.) Wales flashed a header over the bar and forced Turner into an instinctive deflection on another.

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But the U.S. mostly held its nerve. Dominance was long forgotten, but they stayed in it and even started to scrabble back into the contest around the 70th minute, holding the ball for longer and producing some good-looking moments where Pulisic or substitute Brenden Aaronson had time on the ball in front of a retreating defense. The storm might have subsided—until the U.S. defense got lost on a Wales throw-in, and Walker Zimmerman overreacted to his perceived lack of cover by going straight through the back of Gareth Bale, conceding a penalty so obvious that even Gregg Berhalter didn’t argue it.

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Bale stung Matt Turner’s hands with a rocket, and the game stayed tied for the duration. Eighty minutes of soccer that ranged from “This is great!” to “I am very worried, but we are alive,” was undone in one paroxysm (by a player who otherwise looked pretty good).

The Welsh goal makes the American prospects of advancing to the knockout rounds significantly more dicey. A rampant England won 6–2 against an Iran team that seemed distracted and almost indifferent to the events on the field. Based on first game form, the most likely scenario would be for both Wales and the U.S. to lose to England and beat Iran, leaving them tied on four points apiece and with goal differential to decide second place in the group. Wales in that scenario will play an England that has already secured first place in the group; the U.S. will play an Iran team with nothing left to play for but pride, which, given the circumstances, may count even less than usual. The two games in that scenario could mirror the two halves of this one: Whoever holds out better against the English offense and takes more advantage of the Iranian defense will advance.

Or the form of either of those teams could swing drastically in the next week. Maybe the U.S. shocks England. Maybe Iran was conserving energy. First impressions, as we’ve learned, don’t necessarily last in this tournament.

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