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The USMNT Had Their Chance And Then Blew It

Christian Pulisic Right Winger of USA and Chelsea FC gestures during the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between USA and Wales at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Doha, Qatar. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Jose Breton/Getty Images

The USMNT's World Cup hopes remain intact after their opening draw against Wales; it feels awful.

In their first World Cup game in eight years, the young American side came roaring out of the gates. They answered, in emphatic style, the basic question of whether or not the moment would be too big for them. They pushed Wales around, held onto the ball for Guardiolan stretches, and eventually broke through with a killer goal in the 36th minute. The first 45 minutes were a U.S. romp, one that validated all the hope and hype about this very different sort of USMNT. Tim Weah's goal was a fittingly beautiful one, the sort of goal I can't imagine the last U.S. World Cup team having the skill to produce. This is what turning a corner looks like.

But the problem with first halves is that they are succeeded by second halves, which do not always mirror those first halves. Sure enough, Wales seized the initiative the second the whistle blew. For the U.S., this is what rounding that corner and face-planting into a brick wall looks like.

A few hours after the match ended at 1–1, here are the logical, correct takeaways from this game: A draw is a fair, non-disastrous result for the two sides that correctly see each other as the primary obstacle between themselves and the round of 16; the USMNT had a single shot on target, and Wales went all-out for a goal in the first 20 minutes of the second half; Walker Zimmerman's horrible penalty on Gareth Bale was as clear as day; the United States wilted as Wales's veterans rose to the moment in the second half, though the incredibly young USMNT showed it belonged. Math, vibes, and all other factors point to this game as an archetypal 1–1 draw. Everyone involved lives to fight another day.

But the World Cup is no place for logic. The U.S. should have won that game! A clear path to the round of 16 was right there for the taking, and they blew it. It feels terrible. A forgiving thing about the World Cup is that group stage games do not have binary outcomes, and since the U.S. avoided a loss (thanks maybe to Kellyn Acosta's tactical foul on Gareth Bale when Matt Turner was off in Narnia), they are still alive. But an unforgiving aspect of the group stage is that there is really not much of it. You only have three games to earn points, and blowing what could have been a signature win on something as self-inflicted as a dumb penalty in the 80th minute is incredibly frustrating. I think I would be less angst-riddled after the game if Wales had scored a cool goal or beaten the U.S. defense with some strong move or even scored first, but no, they did it to themselves (through both the penalty and Gregg Berhalter's conservative, MLS-ass substituting tactics). It would have been unrealistic to expect the USMNT to maintain the level they had in the first half, but to let go of the rope and watch mediocre veterans like DeAndre Yedlin fart around when the U.S. needed urgency was disappointing.

The experience of watching the second half was one of acute fear that slowly morphed into hope. By the 80th minute, the U.S. had weathered what seemed like Wales's best shot, with Turner coming up with a big save and then Kieffer Moore missing high on a free header off of a corner kick. Brenden Aaronson gave the U.S. a steadying presence, and little spurts of U.S. possession developed into longer periods of time on the ball. Everyone looked dead tired after that Wales flurry, and you could see light at the end of the tunnel. The light turned out to be a train, and now a battered USMNT has to collect itself for a rumble with England in a match that now means more than it did before the 1–1 draw. A result would be monumental, though without it, the U.S.'s destiny is in Wales's hands.

Wales will play England on the final matchday, in a game in which the Three Lions may already have the luxury of resting their A-team. That also means that Wales will play Iran on Friday, in a match that starts before USA vs. England, so the Americans will know if they need anything for the England game before it kicks off. Nothing is fucked after this draw, but losing a golden opportunity for a win sure does feel like a loss.

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