USMNT’s disappointing World Cup let-off must result in growth

Let’s start with the foul. 

It never should have been committed in the first place. 

Walker Zimmerman never needed to take Gareth Bale down with a sliding tackle inside the penalty box with the U.S. men soccer team leading Wales 1-0 late in Monday’s World Cup Group B opening match in Qatar. 

The Americans, ranked 16th in the world, were a tantalizing 10 or so minutes away from securing three of the most important points in their World Cup history against a 19th-ranked Wales team they should have defeated. 

Teams that win their first match in World Cup group play historically advance to the knockout stage 84 percent of the time. This is what was in the tantalizing grasp of the U.S. side when Zimmerman committed that ill-advised foul inside the box. 

Bale, Wales’ best and most decorated player, had his back to the goal on the play and was not a threat to score at the moment. Zimmerman, a two-time MLS defender of the year, needed only to mark him, to contain him. Not blow him up. 

Yet, Zimmerman aggressively threw his lower body into Bale in an effort to jar the ball loose, sending him to the turf and getting called for a game-changing foul. 

It resulted in a gift penalty kick for Bale, which he would convert, sending a missile off his left foot into the right side of the net, deflecting off the hand of U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner, a Park Ridge, N.J., native who played his college ball just up I-95 in Connecticut at Fairfield University. 

Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring a penalty past Matt Turner.
Gareth Bale celebrates after scoring a penalty past Matt Turner.

“We gave them a lifeline,” Turner said after the match. “We dropped two points.” 

No truer words were spoken by anyone from the U.S. team. 

Indeed, a game that the U.S. side had dominated for the first half, was tied at 1-1 after the Bale goal and that’s where it would end — to the delight of Wales, which was on the ropes, and the disappointment of the Americans, who were in control. 

The Bale penalty kick in the 82nd minute gave Wales a gift-wrapped point and it cost the U.S. two incredibly valuable points as it now faces Friday’s second Group B match against England, one of the tournament favorites which smoked Iran 6-2 earlier in the day. 

But this is what the U.S. men’s soccer team does. It has a long history of teasing you, reeling you into thinking it’s about to make a big move on the international stage. And then it disappoints you, leaves you wanting for more. 

After the match, the Americans’ first appearance in the World Cup since 2014 because they failed to qualify in 2018, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter and his players put on their best brave faces, claiming to be proud about securing an important World Cup point. 

But you could see it on their faces afterward: They knew they blew a phenomenal opportunity to put themselves in a commanding position to advance to the knockout stage. 

“The most important thing was that we didn’t lose,” said 22-year-old U.S. forward Tim Weah, the Queens native who scored the U.S. goal in the 36th minute on a marvelous one-timer with the outside of his right foot off a perfect service from Christian Pulisic that split two Wales defenders. 

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This is where the U.S. needs to be better, because this is where American national soccer has been stuck for too long: Hoping to be able to compete with the big boys instead of expecting to beat the big boys. And Wales isn’t even one of the big boys, which makes this even more disappointing. 

It’s understandable what Weah said about the importance of not losing, because a loss would have been debilitating in the group, particularly with a tall task against England awaiting. But the Americans were better than Wales for most of the match and failed to finish, failed to keep their intensity for 90 minutes. 

Berhalter said after the match that he felt his team “lost a little bit of power” in the second half. 

“Wales stepped up the pressure,’’ Berhalter said. “I thought the guys dealt with it well.” 

U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter salutes the fans after the match.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter salutes the fans after the match.

Not well enough. 

Berhalter will be second-guessed for several things in this match, beginning with why forward Giovanni Reyna, one of the most dynamic talents on the team who was a projected starter, curiously didn’t play a minute. 

He, too, didn’t respond quickly enough by substituting fresh bodies in to counter Wales’ change of tactic in the second half as it went from laying back with little interest in possessing the ball while waiting for counterattack chances in the first 45 minutes to being the aggressor in the second half. 

Christian Pulisic
The USMNT’s disappointment must now turn into growth.

“Walking into the locker room after the game,” Berhalter said, “you could see the disappointment in the group.” 

They should be disappointed. Hopefully, that disappointment accelerates their growth. Like in time for Friday’s England match.