April 1, 2023

When it comes to the USMNT, this is what World Cup inexperience looks like

The USMNT celebrates Tim Weah’s goal in their group stage opener at the World Cup in Qatar.

The USMNT celebrates Tim Weah’s goal in their group stage opener at the World Cup in Qatar.
Image: Getty Images

It’s taken some cognitive dissonance for USMNT fans leading up to this World Cup, to sort of ignore the fact that they were showing up with the most inexperienced squad possible. Only Deandre Yedlin has ever been on a World Cup squad before, and he’s hardly anywhere near the first 11. It also has a manager who is doing this for the first time, so he’s going to learn on the job too (though he shouldn’t be allowed on the job ever again if he’s going to continue subbing in Jordan Morris instead of Gio Reyna, but we’ll circle back to that as I wield a mace over my head).

Which means that they can look like anything from one minute to the next. They can play a first half where they look poised, in control, and confident. Which they did. While Wales as a rule are always going to give an opponent some space to find their rhythm, because all they want to do is defend and then counter, the US found more gears in the engine than Wales probably wanted. They spent a lot of time pawing at the Welsh defense, moving the ball from side to side, but they were able to kick into gear when the space opened. Weston McKennie was moving out wide to the right to both support Sergino Dest while also allowing Tim Weah to make runs in behind the backline (though he should have done so a touch more). Christian Pulisic was finding openings in front of the wingback and behind the Wales midfield. He was connecting with Musah and Antonee Robinson and creating little openings for all of them.

What the US did really well was snap right to Gareth Bale and Daniel James up top, and to any of the Wales midfield, so on the rare occasion that Wales got the ball and looked to counter they were smothered. The ball turned right back over the US to try again. Bale can’t really beat a defense with pace anymore, and while James can he’s also…how to put this?..talentless. The US didn’t have to fear getting beat on the turn or by long balls, because they could clean it up. And they did. Wales could only clear the ball and set up again to defend.

And they expertly sucked out Wales just enough to do this:

Sargent to Pulisic to Weah and pick that out. It made you wonder what the US could have done had they moved the ball quicker more often, but having it under total control was hardly a bad thing. Sure, they could have played more balls over the top to Weah or tried more quicker interchanges, but leading 1-0 at half without facing a shot on target or even anything close to one, with Gareth Bale merely a rumor, is everything you’d ask for.

But then there’s another 45 minutes.

In a vacuum, wanting to counter when Wales came looking for their equalizer is an excellent plan. But it’s an excellent plan for the last 10-15 minutes, not the whole half. And what the US lacks, which Musah or Adams or Reyna could turn into one day but aren’t now, is that midfielder who decides and forces whatever tempo is necessary. In the second half, the US needed the proverbial guy to “put their foot on the ball” and take the air out as Welsh pressure grew. Someone who forces the rest of the team to play the ball around, be the release valve for the mounting anxiety, and calm things down. Sure, there were openings for counters, but you have to choose them when they’re obvious. The US was in too much of a hurry at times to get on the counter when it wasn’t on offer. Just keep the ball. The US doesn’t have some midfielder sitting at home who could perform this service, unless they can somehow de-age Michael Bradley or Maurice Edu 10 years. This is just what happens when you bring a squad full of children to this tournament.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t windows, and the US just chose the wrong pass too many times or missed the right one by just enough to not kill the game off. At this level, there isn’t an unlimited supply of good looks on the break that you get. You have to choose correctly between firing a cross across the six-yard box or going for the pullback. You have to connect. It only takes getting one right to end a match like this, but a team has to make that one out of a limited supply.

All that said, the US still had Wales at basically arm’s length. While the Dragons had the ball a lot, they only created two chances off the same corner, with Matt Turner saving brilliantly from Ben Davies and then the ensuing corner being headed over by Kieffer Moore when Turner also decided to go for a roam that seems to be contagious among keepers so far this tournament. That was in the 64th minute. Wales didn’t have another shot…until…

There’s no reason for Walker Zimmerman to make this challenge. Bale has his back to goal and he’s contained. But this is Zimmerman’s biggest game of his life, on a stage he’s never seen. The chemistry is there to do something rash, and voila. It’s hard to get too angry at him for that, because this is how players learn, but this is the most frustrating time to have to learn a lesson. The US also fell asleep on the throw-in right before this, which is something an inexperienced, tiring team just does.

Yes, the US should have been more in the face of Wales for the second half. They dropped their lines, and the Welsh midfield had more time to ping balls up to Moore where in the first half every time they took their first touch they had a Yank up their ass. Moore then was able to be a focal point to get Wales up the field and attack. Did the US run out of energy? Young players tend to be rife with nervous energy, which is the most draining. There’s no other reason this team should be out of gas after an hour.

So now what? It feels like this group will come down to how badly either or both of Wales and the US can beat Iran and have a goal-difference-off. It’s hard to see how the US can keep England out when under the cosh for a full 90 minutes, after they let a pretty limited Wales side grow pretty big over just 45 minutes. England will leave more space for counters, but you still have to defend first. England have so many weapons from so many angles.

It’s hardly over. It’s just going to be a tortuous path. But the USMNT has never known any other way.