Voices: Joseph Lowery

How the USMNT could spoil Gareth Bale's World Cup moment

1115 USMNt Bale

We’re less than a week away, people. The World Cup – and the United States’ first World Cup game in more than eight years – is right around the corner. The USMNT take on Wales on Monday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo) in their Group B opener.

There are a bunch of fun storylines for this game: Will the US look like the team that’s repeatedly gotten the better of Mexico over the last year and a half? Or will they look like the team that limped through September friendlies? What kind of bounce pass will Gregg Berhalter pull out on his opening day? Oh, and how will the US actually go out there and win a pivotal game?

Let’s focus on that last storyline. Here’s how the USMNT can shut down LAFC star Gareth Bale and company ahead of their matchup on Monday.

Take away the counter

If there’s one thing you should know about how manager Rob Page’s Wales team approaches playing soccer, it’s they’re happy to muck things up defensively.

They’re going to try to make life miserable for you by defending in a tight defensive mid-block (likely some sort of a 5-2-3/5-4-1), with a bit of high-pressing occasionally thrown into the mix. Wales don’t like to hold onto the ball. They averaged the lowest possession percentage (48.1%) among all European nations at this World Cup. And, according to The Athletic, they averaged the fewest open-play sequences with 10+ passes among those teams, too.

Instead of trying to create chances in possession, Wales want to hit on the break through players like Bale, the 33-year-old captain. They’ll take advantage of turnovers from opposing teams and try to attack into open space as quickly as possible. The USMNT might not be all that excited about having the ball after how poorly their recent friendlies against Japan and Saudi Arabia went. But given Wales’ commitment to forfeiting the ball, I think it’s safe to say the Yanks are going to have the majority of possession on Monday at Al Rayyan Stadium in Qatar.

For the US, Wales’ deep and undying love of attacking transition means they’re going to have to focus extremely hard on nailing their counter-pressing.

After the United States lose the ball in the attacking half against Wales, they need to snap into action. Even before that happens, they need to be ready.

With proper rest defense, which is how a team sets up in possession to control space before they lose the ball, and aggressive pressure after losing possession, the USMNT can shut down Wales’ counter attacks. Their midfield and frontline will have to be engaged. Tyler Adams will be busy. The backline, led by Nashville SC’s Walker Zimmerman (they’ve already matched up in MLS, albeit for just a few minutes), will have to be alert and synchronized. There’s even some familiarity with LAFC midfielder Kellyn Acosta on the USMNT, perhaps offering some tips and pointers from the training ground.

Under Berhalter, the US have been a strong counter-pressing team. They’ll need that trend to continue on Monday.

It's not just Bale

The tricky thing about controlling Wales, though, is they have a number of different attacking profiles they’ll throw at you over the course of a game.

First, there’s Bale. Technical. Savvy. Versatile. Quick, though not as quick as he used to be. Bale, who moved to LAFC in late June, is this team’s talisman and has more than 100 caps (and a program-record 40 goals) for the Dragons. With his elite close control and his ability to influence the game in open-play and on set pieces, he is truly a game-changing talent. The US will have to track Bale carefully over the course of the match – if you don’t, things like this happen:

If you can control Bale, or at least make him uncomfortable by limiting his space, staying physical, and poking the ball away, you get one step closer to stopping Wales.

Then there’s Kieffer Moore, who plays exactly like you think someone named Kieffer Moore plays. He’s 6-foot-5, physical, and wins just about everything in the air. According to FBref, the Bournemouth striker is in the 94th percentile in aerials won among Premier League forwards. Moore may or may not start against the United States, but if he sees the field, he’ll provide Wales with a great outlet to release the USMNT’s pressure.

There’s Bale. There’s Moore. And then there are Daniel James (Fulham) and Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest), two Premier League forwards who love to exploit space behind opposing backlines. Both players have good speed, functioning as the vertical threats in Page’s counter-attacking system. They’ll run off of Bale or Moore, sprint in behind, and cause problems on the break.

If the US want to spoil Wales’ party on Monday, they’ll have to deal with Bale’s technique and left foot. They’ll also have to deal with Moore’s size and James and Johnson’s speed. It’s a diverse attack, which just emphasizes the importance of the USMNT denying Wales any time to think on the ball, controlling space and organizing their lines.

Hunting for chances

All of this defensive stuff is great. Make no mistake: the US will need to be solid in defensive transition and on set pieces if they want to really edge their way past Wales. But strong defensive play won’t be enough to get the USMNT three points in their group stage opener.

To take down Wales, the Yanks will have to find chances… somewhere. After struggling to create in September, the USMNT won’t be thrilled at the prospects of having to break down three conservative teams in their group (Wales, Iran, and, yes, England would all rather give you the ball than keep it themselves). 

Still, between chances that pop up in attacking transition after counter-pressing moments, or a rare moment of brilliance in open-play, or an attacking set piece, the United States have the quality to create something in the attack.

Perhaps Berhalter chooses to use a more attack-minded midfield against Wales, leaving one of Yunus Musah or, more likely given his recent injury, Weston McKennie on the bench. In their place, Brenden Aaronson could enter midfield in a more advanced role. Or Sergiño Dest could tuck into the midfield to act as a more central creator instead of occupying his usual wide-attacking role. 

Thanks to Wales’ compact defending, it won’t be easy to create. But if the United States can couple strong counter-pressing with precise attacking play, they’ll have three points in their back pockets ahead of their Nov. 25 game against England. Wales won’t make life easy, but the US should know how to spoil their fun.