RAYYAN, Qatar — Setting aside the age and inexperience of the U.S. men’s national team at this World Cup — and the pure joy of returning to the event after an unmentionable fiasco last time — there was a feeling late Monday that the Americans missed another opportunity for a breakthrough moment on soccer’s biggest stage.
Circumstances in each World Cup are different, but with a golden chance to make inroads in the eyes of the world and catch the attention of casual sports fans back home, the Americans fell short again in their 1-1 draw against Wales.
There is no shame in tying a good European team, one that hadn’t qualified for the World Cup in 64 years but made the 2016 Euro semifinals. There was justified anger at Walker Zimmerman, a 10th-year pro, for conceding a late penalty with a sloppy challenge. More than anything, though, there was disappointment in relinquishing a late lead and settling for one point instead of rejoicing over three.
U.S. supporters worked through these same mixed feelings in the team’s previous two World Cup appearances. In 2010, there was the thrill of Landon Donovan’s dramatic goal against Algeria that won the group, but then the unfulfillment of losing to beatable Ghana in extra time in the round of 16.
Four years later, there was the drama of John Brooks’s late header in the group-stage opener against Ghana, followed later by a brave fight and heroic goalkeeping by Tim Howard but ultimately an extra-time setback against far-superior Belgium in the round of 16.
It’s unfair to say the Americans squandered all these opportunities. Situations vary. But they were in position to make a mark, to take the next step, to show they have the sophistication and gumption to win hard games.
Most of the key U.S. players here are young, but they’ve also grown up fast at the highest levels of European club soccer. They’ve played for and against the best of Europe and in the late stage of the UEFA Champions League. They are not naive.
After Monday’s match, Coach Gregg Berhalter and the players spoke of a first-half performance punctuated by confidence, ambition and a terrific scoring sequence, capped by Tim Weah’s goal that Christian Pulisic assisted in brilliant fashion. They played like a team unfazed by the tournament’s gravity.
They also acknowledged shortcomings of the second half, one that veered off-course and left them desperately clinging to the lead.
One point in the opener, Berhalter said, is not the end of the world. And he’s right. His team sits in a second-place tie with Wales with two matches left in a group that will reward two teams with tickets to the knockout stage. Things are not great, but they’re not bad. They’re okay.
At some point, regardless of age and experience, circumstances and expectations, okay can no longer be good enough. The United States needs to win these games, not settle for draws or claim moral victories.
It’s nice to be competitive with European teams at the World Cup, but since 1990, the Americans are 1-11-6 against the sport’s preeminent continent.
Responding to a question about the impact of a good World Cup on growing the sport in the United States, Berhalter said: “For us, it’s about trying to build some momentum, both within the team but also with the American public. We think good performances here can do that.”
Monday’s performance was better than good for 45 minutes. The subsequent 45 was fragile. The Americans were bending but not breaking until Zimmerman took down Gareth Bale from behind with the Welshman’s back to the goal. It was a bad decision in one of those moments that can turn a match and alter a team’s trajectory in the tournament.
“World Cup, you’ve got to be focused,” Berhalter said. “Every single play can have a potential outcome on the game.”
Zimmerman, the lone U.S. starter from an MLS club, has been a reliable regular with the national team for several years and has appeared in about 250 matches across all competitions in his solid career.
With three points from the opener, the United States probably would’ve needed just a draw in either of the next two to advance. For the second-youngest squad at this tournament (behind Ghana), the success-failure threshold is qualifying for the round of 16. It remains a realistic goal in a group with a clear favorite (England) and three teams scrambling for second.
But now things get tricky. And hard. On Friday, the Americans will play England, a 2018 World Cup semifinalist, a 2021 Euro finalist and a 6-2 winner over Iran on Monday. Several hours earlier, Wales gets its shot at the wounded Iranians.
“The hallmark of U.S. teams is we don’t quit and we keep going,” defender Tim Ream said. “You take a point and you look forward to the next game. … It’s just another game [against England]. We’re not going to get too up, too down. You have to go in levelheaded every single match.”
With whom they will go into the England match remains to be seen. Having not played much in recent weeks because of injuries, Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest left early Monday. Others struggled physically in the second half. Is three days enough recovery time?
And what of Gio Reyna, the 20-year-old sensation who didn’t play Monday? Berhalter said he was held out for precautionary reasons after feeling muscle tightness last week but he might be in the mix against England.
Ah, England. The United States does not have to beat England to remain in contention for a place in the knockout stage; no matter the outcome, the group won’t be settled until the last set of matches Nov. 29. But what better way to show they’ve finally arrived than, against all odds, to upset the Three Lions?
World Cup in Qatar
USMNT: The United States faced England in its second World Cup game Friday. The match ended in a 0-0 draw, leaving the United States feeling good about its performance but also leaving Group B wildly unsettled heading into Tuesday’s finales.
Political protest: The looming backdrop to Iran’s World Cup campaign is a nationwide protest movement back home targeting its clerical leadership, and the tensions, inescapable and persistent, are spilling onto the field.
Perspective: The beautiful game is fine. Suitcases full of cash are better. Read Sally Jenkins on the human rights controversy in Qatar.