As for the USMNT, here’s what World Cup inexperience looks like

The USMNT celebrate Tim Weah's goal in their opening game of the World Cup group stage in Qatar.

USMNT celebrates Tim Weah’s goal in their opening match of the World Cup group stage in Qatar.
Image: Getty Images

It took some cognitive dissonance for USMNT fans leading up to this World Cup, to somehow ignore the fact that they were showing up with the most inexperienced team possible. Only Deandre Yedlin has been in a World Cup squad before, and he’s hardly anywhere near the top 11. He also has a manager doing this for the first time, so he’s also going to learn on the job (although he shouldn’t ever be allowed to work again if he wants to continue caption in Jordan Morris instead of Gio Reynabut we’ll get to that as I brandish a mace above my head).

Which means they can look like anything at any minute. They can play a first half where they look poised, in control and confident. What they did. While Wales, as a rule, will always give an opponent some space to find their rhythm, as all they want to do is defend and then counter, the United States have probably found more speeds in the engine than Wales. sought. They spent a lot of time prancing around the Welsh defence, moving the ball from side to side, but they managed to kick into high gear when space opened up. Weston McKennie moved to the right to support Sergino Dest while allowing Tim Weah to make runs behind the baseline (although he should have done it a bit more). Christian Pulisic was finding openings in front of the winger and behind the Wales midfielder. He was connecting with Musah and Antonee Robinson and creating little openings for each of them.

What the United States have done really well is latch on directly to Gareth Bale and Daniel James up top, and any Wales midfielder, so on the rare occasion that the Country of Wales got the ball and looked to block, they were smothered. The ball went straight back to USA to try again. Bale can’t really beat a defense with pace anymore, and while James can, he’s also… how to put it?..without talent. The United States didn’t have to worry about being beaten on the turn or by long bullets because they could clean it up. And they did. Wales could only clear the ball and get back in place to defend.

And they deftly vacuumed Wales just enough to do that:

Sargent to Pulisic to Weah and choose that. It made you wonder what USA could have done if they had moved the ball faster more often, but having it in full control wasn’t a bad thing. Sure, they could have played more balls over Weah or tried quicker rallies, but led 1-0 at half time without facing a shot on target or even anything close, with Gareth Bale just a rumor, that’s all you’d ask.

But there are still 45 minutes left.

In a vacuum, wanting to counter when Wales came for their equalizer is an excellent plan. But it’s a great plan for the last 10-15 minutes, not the whole half. And what is missing in the United States, which Musah, Adams or Reyna could become one day but are not now, is this midfielder who decides and imposes the necessary rhythm. In the second half, the United States needed the proverbial guy to ‘get his foot on the ball’ and get some air as the Welsh pressure mounted. Someone who forces the rest of the team to play the ball, be the release valve for growing anxiety, and calm things down. Sure, there were openings for the counters, but you have to pick them when they’re obvious. The United States was sometimes too eager to get to the counter when it was not offered. Just keep the ball. The United States do not have a midfielder sitting at home who could perform this service, unless they can somehow age Michael Bradley or Maurice Edu by 10 years. That’s exactly what happens when you bring a team full of kids to this tournament.

That doesn’t mean there weren’t any windows, and USA simply picked the wrong pass too many times or missed the right one just enough not to kill the game. At this level, there isn’t an unlimited supply of good looks on the break you get. You have to choose correctly between shooting a cross through the six-yard box or going for the takedown. You need to login. Getting one is enough to end a match like this, but a team must craft one from a limited number.

That said, the United States still had Wales at bay. While the Dragons had plenty of the ball, they only created two chances in the same corner, with Matt Turner saving brilliantly from Ben Davies and then the next corner being headed by Kieffer Moore when Turner also decided to go for a roaming that seems to be contagious among goalies so far this tournament. It was in the 64th minute. Wales didn’t get another chance…until…

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

Yes, USA should have been more against Wales in the second half. They dropped their lines and the Welsh midfielder had more time to send balls to Moore where, in the first half, every time they took their first touch, they had a yank in the ass. Moore was then able to be a focal point to bring Wales onto the pitch and attack. Has the United States run out of energy? Young players tend to be filled with nervous energy, which is the most exhausting. There’s no other reason for this team to run out of gas after an hour.

And now? It feels like this group will come down to how Wales and USA, or both, can beat Iran and have goal difference. It’s hard to see how the United States can keep England away when they’re under the hammer for a full 90 minutes, after letting a fairly limited Wales side grow quite big in just 45 minutes. England will leave more space for counters, but you should always defend first. England has so many weapons from so many angles.

It’s barely over. It will just be a tortuous path. But the USMNT has never known any other way.

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