England saved in postcolonial grudge match by USA’s invisible striker
A battling, courageous effort confirmed what many have long suspected: this US side remain a team in search of a goalscorer
American TV viewers were treated to the pop-cultural equivalent of Gegenpressing in the leadup to Friday’s postcolonial grudge match between the US and England: whenever a semblance of coherence materialised in Fox Sports’s preview of the match, it was quickly shut down. In the 10 minutes before kickoff, members of the Fox “team” asserted, variously, that “it all circles around Harry Kane” (does it?), that America is “used to being the biggest, the baddest, and the best in everything” (tell that to the tennis players of Europe or India’s cricketers), and that “you’re going to see this US team playing aggressively, stepping in the English players’ faces” (seems bookable). George Washington and the American Revolution scored a mention over footage of America’s midfielders performing pre-match squats.
On the field, a match eventually took shape, with America’s players executing something close to Fox’s on-air strategy of confusion and harassment, only with much more pleasing results. For much of the match, the US were consistently faster to the ball, playing with an urgency and an incision that made England look lumbering and befuddled. Despite their dominance, however, America once again paid for their lack of decisiveness in the final third – a story that has become depressingly familiar for a team that is at last threatening to make good on its immense promise.
An acute awareness of their finishing difficulties seemed to accompany the US players onto the pitch at Al Bayt Stadium. As this oddly hysterical stalemate ticked past the hour mark, America’s on-field brains trust – the star winger Christian Pulisic, midfield orchestrator Weston McKennie, and defensive leader Walker Zimmerman – gathered by the corner flag for a brief strategy meeting. England had just conceded their sixth corner of the night. Christian Pulisic’s set-piece delivery, so woeful in the USMNT’s World Cup opener, had been routinely excellent in this match, with only one problem: there was never anyone in the penalty area to meet the ball after it cleared the first English defender. On the fly, the US’s key trio devised a plan for how to shackle England’s defenders and create space for an American opening in front of goal.
Pulisic’s corner arced across the clump of English players, beyond the reach of Jordan Pickford, and toward the vacant far post. Zimmerman arrived – but around two seconds too late to make anything of the opportunity. The pattern of the match – in which the US carved England’s midfield apart at will, creating chance after chance from wide areas that no American player was on hand to convert – was confirmed. A battling, courageous effort from the Americans here only confirmed what many have long suspected about this vintage of the USMNT: it remains a team in search of a striker.
Midfield control, speed on the flanks, balls spraying across the box, England on the rack, and no goals: such was the story of this match for the US. In midfield and out wide, this US team boasts a cleverness that the more agricultural American outfits of years past lacked. Much of America’s joy in this match came down the right side, with Sergiño Dest and Tim Weah providing the kind of buccaneering thrust that England so clearly missed, while on the other flank Christian Pulisic had perhaps his best match ever in national colours, hitting the crossbar once and repeatedly skipping away from defenders with the graceful commitment of a New York subway rider beating the closing doors. For once all the dreary, incessant insistence of American fans that Pulisic is a generational talent that three successive Chelsea managers have miraculously conspired to shackle seemed justified.
A match of half-chances cried out for a ruthless finisher to settle the affair but if England’s misfortune was that Harry Kane spent most of the game bailing out his back four, America’s was that its own frontman was mostly invisible. US manager Gregg Berhalter dropped Norwich City’s Josh Sargent, a largely peripheral figure in the 1-1 draw against Wales, and elevated Haji Wright to his starting lineup. But the 6ft 3in target man – a former US youth international who appeared in the same under-17 side as many of this team’s most important players, and now plays his club football for Antalyaspor in the Turkish Süper Lig – struggled to impose himself on proceedings, an early header that flashed just wide of the upright representing his most telling contribution. At times Wright combined well with Dest and Weah but these interventions felt emptily decorative; it says everything about his absence in front of goal that the US’s two best scoring opportunities fell to Pulisic and McKennie.
The lack of a reliable finisher creates a real problem for Berhalter as the US prepare for a must-win encounter against Iran. It also represents something of a historical anomaly: in every other World Cup played this century the US’s biggest outfield stars were its strikers – players of the caliber of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, now ensconced as pundits on the Fox Sport set on Doha’s waterfront. If anything those earlier teams were over-reliant on their forwards and let down by a certain stodginess in the middle of the pitch. Now the opposite dilemma holds: the US team is loaded with skilled midfielders and create a torrent of chances but has no one to put them away.
Having tried two different options up front with little success Berhalter may now turn to the remaining out-and-out striker in his squad, but it’s doubtful that FC Dallas’s Jesús Ferreira will succeed where Sargent and Wright haven’t. Despite the pre-match optimism of Fox Sports’s resident revolutionary war historians, the US will have to wait until Qatar holds its next World Cup before it can complete the Bunker Hill-Al Bayt double over England. Until then, America’s search for a No 9 to complement its brimming roster of midfield talent goes on.