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Young U.S. men show they belong but settle for World Cup draw with Wales

Group B: United States 1, Wales 1

Gareth Bale of Wales and the Americans' Christian Pulisic played to a draw Monday in Qatar. (Pedro Nunes/Reuters)

RAYYAN, Qatar — The U.S. men’s national soccer team arrived at this World Cup primed to restore dignity and verve after an unfathomable absence four years ago. It set foot in this small country big on ideas but short on age, full of harmony but devoid of the international experience typically required to succeed under the sport’s brightest lights.

In their return, the young Americans looked every bit like they belonged, going ahead of Wales in the first half on a goal by Tim Weah, whose father, an African soccer legend and Liberia’s president, never got the chance to play in a World Cup.

Amid declining play and repeated threats, however, that lead was lost in the 82nd minute. An ill-advised tackle by Walker Zimmerman led to a penalty kick by Gareth Bale and ultimately a 1-1 draw before 43,418 at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium.

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“Walking into the locker room after the game, you can see the disappointment of the group, the collective disappointment,” Coach Gregg Berhalter said. “It didn’t look like a team playing in their first World Cup. They looked mature, especially in the first half, and in the second half, the battle, the effort they gave, the perseverance just to keep going was excellent.”

With hopes for three points dashed, the Americans will pivot to Friday’s match against Group B favorite England, which demolished Iran, 6-2, earlier Monday. Two teams from the group will advance to the knockout stage; to have any chance, the United States probably will need to beat the Three Lions or Iran on Nov. 29.

“This is a pretty easy one,” Berhalter said of having to prepare for England. “You’re getting to play England. I mean, that’s the recovery right there. There’s not going to be many tired players come Friday.”

To a man, the Americans expressed pride in their terrific first-half performance while also lamenting a ragged second half and their failure to close out the match.

“We’re happy with the point, but I’m a bit frustrated that we didn’t get three because I thought we managed a lot of the game really well,” captain Tyler Adams said.

The United States has not defeated a European team in the World Cup since its 2002 opener in South Korea, where it surprised Portugal, 3-2. Before that, its previous victory against a representative from that continent came in 1950 in Brazil, a 1-0 stunner against England that remains one of the great upsets in tournament history. The United States is 1-11-6 against European foes since qualifying for the 1990 World Cup.

While the Americans agonized over an eight-year World Cup pause, Wales had waited 64 years. As they took to the field for warmups, the Dragons were serenaded over the speakers by “Yma o Hyd,” the Welsh folk song written by Dafydd Iwan that became the team’s rallying cry during its historic run to the World Cup.

The Americans were lively in the early stages, showing no signs of the tentativeness and insecurity that marred two dismal tuneups in September. Christian Pulisic’s touch was off, in the run of play and on set pieces, but the Americans used the wings and overlapping fullbacks to serve dangerous crosses and apply pressure.

In the 10th minute, Weah’s cross almost forced an own goal on Joe Rodon, and seconds later, Josh Sargent’s angled header hit the outside of the left post. Though Wales labored to construct anything of substance, it was patient with its plan.

The match slowed, and the Americans were forced into problem-solving against the deep-lying Dragons. Could anyone, through individual brilliance or combination work, pierce the patient resistance?

The answer came in the 36th minute. As Sargent chested down the ball near midfield, Pulisic pounced. He roared past Rodon, accelerated into space and, just as Chris Mepham prepared to intervene, touched a lovely ball into the box.

Using a diagonal run to claim the central channel, Weah gained inside position on Neco Williams. He met Pulisic’s delivery in stride and coolly one-timed a low 11-yarder past advancing goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey for his fourth international goal in 26 appearances.

In attendance were Weah’s parents, including his father, George, a scoring legend for the Liberian national team and big European clubs.

“When he played, he never got the opportunity” to take part in a World Cup, said Tim Weah, a native New Yorker. “But I think he’s kind of living that experience through me. I’m happy to make him proud and to make both parents proud.”

Wales made an adjustment at halftime by introducing 6-foot-5 striker Kieffer Moore, who promised to wreak havoc on set pieces. The Dragons gained traction in possession against a U.S. team losing its way. The performance became sloppy and disjointed. After doing as they pleased in the first half, the Americans found themselves under duress, unable to relieve pressure or keep the ball.

“Two completely different halves,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said. “We didn’t set the tone the way we did in the first half.”

In the 65th, Turner made a leaping touch save on Ben Davies’s bid. On the ensuing corner kick, Moore’s glancing header streaked over the crossbar.

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The Americans looked as if they might hang on for three points, but Zimmerman went in hard on Bale, who, with his back to the net, was not an immediate threat to score.

Zimmerman said he didn’t see “Bale come across, and I think it was one of those where he probably just puts his leg out not for the ball but to try and get in the way of me hitting the ball. So I kind of went through him.”

Zimmerman “thought he was going to be first to the ball. ... It looks like a penalty,” said Berhalter, who added that, in the buildup to that pivotal sequence, he thought the ball had gone out of bounds “by a good margin.”

U.S. men's national team Coach Gregg Berhalter has a talented young squad with experience in top European leagues, but not in international competition. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Turner read Bale’s penalty kick perfectly by diving to his left, but the shot was struck with so much pace that he couldn’t prevent the Welsh captain’s 41st international goal.

“That’s a lifeline for any team,” Turner said of the penalty call. “We need to be smarter in the situation.”

Nine minutes of stoppage time failed to produce a winner — Kellyn Acosta’s yellow-card tackle on Bale, his Los Angeles FC teammate in MLS, prevented a possible shot over the straying Turner — and the teams settled for a share of second place.

“You are thinking about how we’re going to close out the game and we’re going to get the victory, and it didn’t happen,” Berhalter said. “The guys are disappointed, the staff is disappointed, but when you look at the effort, when you look at how we played for the majority of the game, we’ll be okay and we’ll build on it.”

World Cup in Qatar

World champions: Argentina has won the World Cup, defeating France in penalty kicks in a thrilling final in Lusail, Qatar, for its first world championship since 1986. Argentina was led by global soccer star Lionel Messi in what is expected to be his final World Cup appearance. France was bidding to become the first repeat champion since Brazil won consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962.

Today’s WorldView: In the minds of many critics, especially in the West, Qatar’s World Cup will always be a tournament shrouded in controversy. But Qatar’s foreign minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, wants people to take another view.

Perspective: “America is not a men’s soccer laughingstock right now. It’s onto something, and it’s more attuned to what’s working for the rest of the world rather than stubbornly forcing an American sports culture — without the benefit of best-of-the-best talent — into international competition.” Read Jerry Brewer on the U.S. men’s national team’s future.

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