If there’s a risk to having the second-youngest squad at the 2022 World Cup, Team USA showed why at Doha’s Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on Monday night, when Gregg Berhalter’s team fought hard but ultimately folded under late pressure to tie 1-1 against a tenacious Wales team.
The U.S. drew first blood at 36 minutes when Chelsea forward Christian Pulisic ran fast and direct at the Wales defense and threaded a pass to Timothy Weah, who finished calmly past goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey with the outside of his boot. But Wales equalized 10 minutes before the final whistle, after Walker Zimmerman brought down Gareth Bale to hand the Wales captain a penalty that he dispatched resolutely into the top corner.
In the end, a draw was probably a fair result for what was the first ever World Cup encounter between these teams. After failing to qualify for Russia in 2018, the U.S. returns to the competition in Qatar as the reigning Concacaf Gold Cup champions. Wales, meanwhile, is competing at the finals for the first time in 64 years after defeating Austria and Ukraine in the European qualifying playoffs.
Following England’s emphatic 6-2 victory against Iran earlier in the day, it was important that the U.S. got something against Wales, and the main objective for both teams was to avoid defeat. Following their own game, England coach Gareth Southgate said that the U.S. “would be coming for us full throttle.”
Wales can testify to that. On Sunday, Tyler Adams was unveiled as U.S. captain for the World Cup. The Leeds United midfielder told journalists the recognition was a “huge honor” but that the team was filled with leaders who “can represent us on any given day.” And leaders were clear all over the pitch as the U.S. passed the ball around with purpose. Pulisic displayed some slick interchanges with Adams and Juventus midfielder Weston McKennie in particular.
Berhalter gambled to start both McKennie and Sergino Dest, despite the pair just returning from lengthy injuries. But both left their mark early on, earning yellow cards within a minute of each other early in the first half for overly aggressive challenges in virtually the same spot near the touchline.
Wales is a classic tournament team whose collective will betrays the individual caliber of their players, many of whom toil in England’s lower leagues. The sight of former Juventus midfielder Aaron Ramsey with dyed blond hair—in a throwback to Euro 2016 when Wales reached the semi-finals—stirred the passion of their fans, who belted out the national anthem with the gusto of a baritone choir (and kept singing all match long). Ramsey, though, failed to match the passion of his countrymen on the pitch, and struggled against the youth and vigor of the Americans’ high press.
Wales gave Belgium and Netherlands a torrid time in recent European Nations League encounters with a fearless approach, and they grew into the game after falling behind. Still, they were lost for ideas early on, squandering possessions too cheaply as they sought to get the ball to Bale, their captain and talisman. Their best chance was a header from defender Chris Mepham that went wide just on the stroke of half-time. After the break, Wales emerged reinvigorated; Ben Davies almost equalized with a header on the 64th minute after chaos in the Team USA penalty box, only for Matt Turner to make a smart save. Then Kieffer Moore, as 6’5″ striker who Adams called “a big threat” on Sunday, headed over the bar from the resulting corner when well-placed.
Bale, the LA Galaxy forward, was always going to be the attacking focus for Wales. The 33-year-old may not be the rampaging force that won five Champions League titles with Real Madrid, but he showed glimpses of his lingering potency with a world class leap and header to equalize for Galaxy against Philadelphia Union in the 128th minute extra time of this year’s MLS Cup. Wales’ all-time record goal-scorer and captain regularly raises his game for the national team, though he struggled in the first half today, isolated up front and misplacing passes when he dropped deep to help out midfield. His most telling contribution was a late challenge on Yunus Musah just before halftime that earned him a yellow card. Then came the late foray into the box and Zimmerman’s outstretched leg.
Berhalter built his reputation on the bold decision to cull the fading veterans from his team and opt for promising youngsters, installing an energetic pressing style. Still, the final two warmups games before the tournament—a 2-0 defeat to Japan and a goalless draw with Saudi Arabia—weren’t exactly inspirational. While wingers and central midfield are strengths of this team, fans fret that the lack of a proven goalscorer and solid center-backs leaves it weak in the front and back. The latter proved decisive.
Despite their undoubted talent, with today’s Team USA featuring regulars from some of Europe’s biggest clubs, a lack of depth fostered fears that it would wilt when up against the might of storied giants like Brazil, Argentina, France or Group B rivals England, whom the U.S. face the day after Thanksgiving. “The guys gave everything,” Berhalter told the assembled media after the game. “[But] we got a little bit sloppy with the ball in the second half.”
The U.S. women have set the bar high, triumphing in two World Cups since the men last competed in their version of the tournament. And even if overall victory might be a step too far, the impetus to show pride was key. That was achieved. Next must come the winning.