The Americans, Gareth Southgate warned in the wake of England’s 6-2 dissection of Iran, will “come at us full throttle”.
What does Top Gear USMNT: World Cup Edition look like? We saw the engine run at near maximum for about 45 minutes against Wales on Monday before sputtering and stalling in the second half.
If Wales win Iran in Friday’s early kick-off, the US will have seven hours before they face England to digest the need to win at least one of their remaining two Group B games. Iran is clearly beatable. And there is an argument to be made that Wales’ defense is firmer than England’s, who managed to look limp against unlucky opponents who only had 21% of possession.
A loss to England would risk qualifying for the knockout stages – an important milestone for a team trying to build a resume to match its hyped reputation. But based on the evidence from the opening games, it would be audacious to predict that the US can suppress England’s effervescent attack for 90 minutes (or more than 100 minutes, as the games appear to be in Qatar).
It’s the fake baby effect. In Clint Eastwood’s 2014 film American Sniper, Bradley Cooper’s character cradles a plastic doll that we presume is his newborn son. A lonely misplaced scene in an otherwise carefully crafted film that lasts more than two hours. Maybe it shouldn’t matter much. However, it’s such an obvious gag, such a blatant misjudgment by the filmmakers, that the whole enterprise loses credibility. For contestants at this level, be it Academy Awards or World Cup, one glaring mistake is one too many.
So it was that a single foul, the penalty awarded to Walker Zimmerman late in the 1-1 draw, undermined a convincing first-half performance. You could appreciate the entertainment and see the talent – just don’t trust it completely, don’t believe with all your heart and unconditionally that what you watch will pass the most intense scrutiny. At least not at this midpoint of a growth curve plotted from the nadir of failing to make the 2018 tournament to co-hosting in 2026.
With two-thirds of possession, but only a one-goal lead at halftime, the US failed to make enough profit from what was, given the stakes, as impressive as it had been under Gregg Berhalter’s tenure. But for a hasty tackle from one of his most reliable players during Concacaf qualifying, the prevailing narrative surrounding the head coach would be praise for his team selection, not jagged questions about why he left lost playmaker Gio Reyna on the bench, but one more everyday winger in Jordan Morris in the late stages.
The decision to call 35-year-old Tim Ream out of the cold paid off, with the Fulham defender composed and competent. Midfielder Tyler Adams, a day after being announced captain following a player vote, was the best player on the field. Those failed friendlies in September against Japan (0-2) and Saudi Arabia (0-0) felt distant and irrelevant.
The US executed Berhalter’s vision and pressed high from the first whistle. Wales were nearly overwhelmed by younger, faster, trickier opponents, their initial bunker-and-break strategy soon becoming unsustainable. A squad of World Cup debutants with an average age of 25 was so furious they forgot to be nervous.
Berhalter’s side were also versatile, with smooth goalscorer Tim Weah and buzzing set-up man Christian Pulisic dangerous on the flanks, Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest advancing on purpose from full-back, 19-year-old Yunus Musah pushing through central midfield and striker rushed. Josh Sargent grazes a post with a header and harassing centre-backs. “We came on fire,” goaltender Matt Turner told Fox Sports. But fires die out or are extinguished.
The context for the individual foul that led to Gareth Bale’s equalizing goal was increasing pressure on the US defense caused by Wales adopting more direct tactics and increasing their pace in the second period and the US unable to adapt to the new challenge.
This is not a new complaint. While Berhalter continues a project that started during the Jürgen Klinsmann era to renovate the foundations of the national team, to make the planet admire an American side for his skill and his mind, his dazzle and not just his grind, some resilience and flexibility has been lost. That could be the price of youth, or a coaching blemish.
Wales, despite all talk that this was their first World Cup final since 1958, took part in Euro 2020 last year, reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016 and qualified for this tournament via two do-or-die playoff matches. Their team is limited, but has a lot of experience and perseverance and is one of the great moments in Bale.
In the second half, as the Americans tried to protect their lead and assert their dominance, Berhalter introduced new legs, but no new ideas. Weah’s goal in the 36th minute proved to be the USA’s only shot on target, reinforcing tournament fears over the team’s lack of potential in the absence of a high caliber striker.
New generation, old problem: The US has not defeated a European nation in a World Cup final since a 3-2 win over Portugal in 2002. A line-up almost entirely filled with players from Europe will get another chance on Friday. Using their dynamic strengths, they will no doubt aim to start again soon, as the England manager expects. But if the US can’t play the role in the later stages, when the initial gusts subside and the game evolves into a test of wits and will, then they’re not real yet.