Monday’s meeting between the United States and Wales in Group B of the 2022 World Cup was truly a game of two halves. The Americans dominated the opening period, pinning Wales deep and maintaining comfortable possession. They nearly scored within the first 10 minutes, as Wayne Hennessey was forced to save a potential Joe Rodon own-goal before Josh Sargent clipped the outside of the post with a headed effort just moments later.
They wouldn’t have to wait much longer, though, and took a deserved lead in the 36th minute when Christian Pulisic drove between the Welsh lines and played a defense-splitting ball through to Tim Weah, who finished the move deftly with the outside of his right boot in front of the Wales faithful. The U.S. were excellent in the first 45 minutes, and Wales looked lost for ideas. They couldn’t hold the ball at all and were second best to the Americans all up and down the pitch. It was clear that Rob Page needed to change something at the break, and that he did.
The introduction of Kieffer Moore at the start of the second half completely changed the complexion of the encounter. The AFC Bournemouth striker came on in replacement of Dan James, who had struggled to get into the game whatsoever up until that point. Moore provided a strong outlet for the Welsh side, and as the Americans tired and their press dropped off, Page’s side were able to get up the pitch thanks to his hold-up play.
Although the Americans still finished the match with the majority of possession (59%), Wales were significantly more dangerous in the second half, and ending up accruing a considerably greater xG value (1.55) than the US (0.79). While Berhalter’s substitutions, including Brendan Aaronson and Haji Wright, did give the United States fresh legs and more energy, the tactical problem which Moore created was never addressed, and Wales’ pressure finally paid off in the 82nd minute when two-time MLS Defender of the Year Walker Zimmerman made a clumsy sliding challenge in the box on recently crowned MLS Cup Champion Gareth Bale.
A penalty was correctly awarded, and Bale stepped up to deliver for Wales as he has so many times in the past. Although Matt Turner got fingertips to Bale’s strike, the power on the hit proved too much for the Arsenal deputy keeper, and the ball flew into the top right corner, sending the “Red Wall” into raptures. There were a few more chances before the end of the game, which lasted over 100 minutes due to countless injury stoppages, but the game ended at 1-1, a fair result in my opinion.
From an American perspective, this is hugely disappointing. The first-half performance was nothing short of superb; dare I say one of the best halves of football played by the US during Gregg Berhalter’s time in charge. However, one half can’t win you the game, and the performance in the second period was horrible. The US had this game in the palm of their hands and let it slip. They had countless opportunities to counter when Wales had pushed forward, but the decision making in the final third was consistently askew. The goal came from two players getting caught out by a quickly taken throw-in and a quite moronic challenge from Walker Zimmerman who has been fantastic for the US as of late. Wales deserved that goal, though, because the US simply were not good enough after the break.
So, where does that leave Group B? Well, England sit firmly on top of the group, and I doubt it is a position that they will leave. The second qualifying spot will therefore essentially come down to who gets beat by England by fewer goals, and who can beat Iran by the most goals. That’s obviously an oversimplification of what could happen; upsets are very possible in the World Cup as proven by Saudi Arabia yesterday, but it is most likely that who between the United States and Wales will advance to the knockout stages will be determined by goal difference. One advantage Wales has is that they play Iran next while the United States play England, meaning Wales will likely be in second place come the final round of fixtures in Group B, placing all the pressure on the United States when they face Iran on the 29th. It sure will be interesting, and scary if you’re American or Welsh, to see how all this plays out.