The Americans have more skill and wit than in previous generations. But some resilience and flexibility appears to have been lost along the way
The Americans, Gareth Southgate warned in the wake of England’s 6-2 dissection of Iran, will be “coming for us full throttle”.
What does Top Gear USMNT: World Cup Edition look like? We saw the engine revving at close to maximum for 45 minutes or so against Wales on Monday before a splutter and a second-half stall.
If Wales overcome Iran in Friday’s early kick-off the US will have seven hours before facing England to digest the need to win at least one of their remaining two games in Group B. Iran, clearly, are beatable. And there’s an argument to be made that the Welsh defence is more solid than England’s, which contrived to look slapdash against hapless opponents who had only 21% of the possession.
A loss to England would leave qualification for the knockout stages – an important marker for a team trying to build a resumé to match its hyped reputation – in the balance. But on the evidence of the opening fixtures it would be brave to predict that the US can suppress England’s effervescent attack over 90 minutes (or 100-plus minutes, as games seem to be in Qatar).
It’s the fake baby effect. In the 2014 Clint Eastwood film, American Sniper, Bradley Cooper’s character cradles a plastic doll that we are supposed to believe is his newborn son. A solitary misbegotten scene in an otherwise carefully crafted movie that lasts more than two hours. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter much. However, it’s such an obvious prop, such an egregious misjudgment by the filmmakers, that the entire enterprise loses credibility. For competitors at this level, be it Academy Awards or World Cup, one glaring screw-up is one too many.
So it was that a single foul, the penalty conceded by Walker Zimmerman late in the 1-1 draw, undermined a convincing first-half performance. You could appreciate the entertainment and see the talent – just not fully trust it, not believe wholeheartedly and unconditionally that what you’re watching will stand up to the most intense scrutiny. Not, at any rate, at this mid-point on a growth curve plotted from the low of failing to reach the 2018 tournament towards co-hosting in 2026.
With two-thirds possession but only a one-goal lead at the break the US failed to reap enough profit from what was, given the stakes, as impressive a half as any under Gregg Berhalter’s tenure. But for a rash tackle from one of his most reliable players during Concacaf qualifying, the prevailing narrative centered on the head coach would be praise for his team selection, not serrated questions about why he left the prodigal playmaker Gio Reyna on the bench but introduced a more workaday winger in Jordan Morris in the late stages.
The decision to call 35-year-old Tim Ream in from the cold paid off, with the Fulham defender composed and competent. Midfielder Tyler Adams, a day after being announced as captain after a players’ vote, was the best player on the pitch. Those conked-out September friendlies against Japan (0-2) and Saudi Arabia (0-0) felt distant and irrelevant.
Enacting Berhalter’s vision, the US pressed high from the first whistle. Wales were almost overwhelmed by younger, faster, trickier opponents, their initial bunker-and-break strategy swiftly rendered untenable. A starting XI of World Cup debutants with an average age of 25 was so ferocious they clean forgot to be nervous.
Berhalter’s side were versatile, too, with supple goalscorer Tim Weah and buzzing set-up man Christian Pulisic dangerous on the flanks, Antonee Robinson and Sergiño Dest advancing with intent from full back, 19-year-old Yunus Musah scudding through central midfield and striker Josh Sargent grazing a post with a header and hassling center backs. “We came out on fire,” goalkeeper Matt Turner told Fox Sports. But fires burn out or are put out.
The context for the individual error that led to Gareth Bale’s equalizer was a build-up of pressure on the US defense caused by Wales employing more direct tactics and raising their tempo in the second period and the US proving unable to adjust to the new challenge.
This is not a new complaint. As Berhalter continues a project began during the Jürgen Klinsmann era to renovate the foundations of the national team, to make the planet admire an American side for its skill as well as its spirit, its dazzle and not merely its grind, some resilience and flexibility has been lost. That may be the price of youth, or a coaching blemish.
Wales, for all the talk of this being their first World Cup finals since 1958, did compete in Euro 2020 last year, reached the semi-finals of Euro 2016, and qualified for this tournament via two do-or-die playoff games. Their squad is limited but has abundant experience and tenacity and one of the great moment-seizers in Bale.
In the second half, as the Americans sought to protect their lead and reassert their dominance, Berhalter introduced fresh legs but not fresh ideas. Weah’s 36th-minute goal turned out to be the only US shot on target, reinforcing pre-tournament fears about the team’s lack of potency in the absence of a high-caliber striker.
New generation, old problem: the US haven’t beaten a European nation at a World Cup finals since a 3-2 victory over Portugal in 2002. A line-up that is almost entirely stacked with Europe-based players gets another opportunity on Friday. Playing to their dynamic strengths, they will no doubt aim to start fast again, as the England manager expects. But if the US can’t act the part in the later stages, when the first flurries subside and the contest evolves into a test of wit and will, then they aren’t yet for real.