AL RAYYAN, Qatar – Not a bad result. Not a result that ends the United States’ hope for that world Cup. It’s not an entirely fair reflection of a US-dominated game. And not – certainly not – a disaster.
But, my God, what a kick in the teeth for the young American team of Gregg Berhalter against whom they could not finish the job Wales Monday, a punch that will test every element of their mettle in the days and matches to come.
After by Tim Weah the opening of the first half was canceled by a Gareth Bale penalty – of course, Bale – with eight minutes left, USA find themselves locked in a stalemate for second place in Group B ahead of their now critical clash with England Friday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports app).
[Top plays from USA-Wales 1-1 draw]
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It could, and perhaps should, have looked a lot more rosy than that. For this one had begun to look locked in, sparking thoughts of a dream start and instant passage through the hearts of the American sporting public for a group of players with no shortage of fire and determination.
This time it wasn’t quite enough.
In Basel, Wales have a five-time Champions League winner and a man who at his peak was among the best in the world. His opportunity presented itself when Walker Zimmermann fouled him in the box after a trick ball from Aaron Ramsey and the resulting kick, hit into the corner of the net, was every bit as clinical as you’d expect.
Previously, it was all of the United States.
When the American goal came, 35 minutes into the first half, it was fully deserved. Berhalter’s group had completely dominated up to this point, barely allowing Wales, the 2016 European Championship semi-finalists, to come out of their own half at times.
[World Cup Daily: England now has upper hand in Group B]
Wales had been defensive, but that was out of necessity, not choice, rather a reaction to their failure to find their stars, Bale and Ramsey, in favorable positions.
Such realities require innovation to break them down. That’s what happened when Josh Sargentthe Berhalter striker, threw the ball well to Christian Pulisic to take full force and crash into the penalty area, a move surely practiced frequently on the training ground.
Pulisic’s beautifully timed ball sent Weah on goal, and the youngster, whose father George was a former World Footballer of the Year but has never played a World Cup, was calm in the moment.
[Must-read: Tim Weah fulfilling his father’s legacy at World Cup]
A flick with the outside of his right wedge and the ball went past the keeper wayne hennessy and in the Welsh net, America’s first World Cup scorer since Julien Green got a consolation goal in the team’s 2-1 loss to Belgium in the round of 16 2014.
We’ve barely heard of Green since, but those were also the days of Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. Landon Donovan also controversially left the team just before the tournament.
A different generation.
It’s a new one, one that hopes to announce itself to the world.
For an even more striking note of history, how about this? The last scorer against Wales at a World Cup before Weah? None other than Brazilian legend Pelé, in the quarter-finals in 1958.
That might explain something. For it was Wales’ first World Cup since then, bringing a historic level of tension that cannot be easily shaken. For much of the evening, the Wales players were alone in their heads.
It took less than 10 minutes for the first opportunities to land, with Weah giving an early indication of his positive intent with a cross that the Wales defender Joe Rodon could only awkwardly direct his own goalkeeper. Moments later, a Antonee Robinson cross met Sargent’s head, but his aim was wide.
Berhalter had demanded aggression and intensity, and it was there from the start. Sometimes it overflowed, like Weston McKennie and Sergino Destboth injured before the game, received a yellow card in the first 15 minutes.
Given the level of superiority of the United States in the first half, a change in Wales was inevitable. big striker Kieffer Moore was introduced at the interval, a move designed to give Bale more chances to get the ball at his feet. Moore was a new kind of challenge for centre-halves Tim Rame and Zimmerman, and the Americans no longer had everything in their way.
At 64 minutes, a Ben Davis USA goalkeeper forced header Matt Turner to make his first significant save, a reaction parry in a crowded penalty area. Moore rose the highest in the resulting corner and found himself unguarded, but could only guide his head over the crossbar.
Slowly things started to turn. The United States kept pushing, but there was more action the other way, more pressure, more threat.
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Eventually, a crack appeared. The Americans had been physical with Bale all evening, such is his danger level, and Zimmerman went a bit too hard with a challenge in the box.
Suddenly everything was square, and that’s how it ended.
No back to square one, but the United States came away with a lot of work to do and a lot to ponder.