The US men’s national team, on Monday night just outside of Doha, made their return to the FIFA World Cup for the first time in eight years, earning a 1-1 draw with Wales.
It was a promising, frustrating, heartening and infuriating return – one that spoke to the promise of this large and young new era of players, but also spoke to their inexperience and naivete.
A drum I’ve been beating forever and ever: Tournament play is different from league play in a lot of ways. One of the biggest – maybe the absolute biggest – is in how outsized a factor set pieces are in any tournament format.
We’ve seen this time and again in virtually every tournament setting, from the Audi MLS Cup Playoffs (five of the six goals scored in MLS Cup itself came off of set pieces) to the Concacaf Gold Cup to the 2018 World Cup, when France were absolutely dominant in basically every dead ball situation.
Deep into the second half, the Wales equalizer came off a penalty which is, I guess, technically a set piece. But the penalty itself came after the US lost track of the game and then Walker Zimmerman lost his head on an attacking throw-in by the Welsh.
Attacking throw-ins, for a team like the Welsh, are essentially set pieces. They absolutely went for it for the entirety of the second half, and it always felt like if an equalizer was going to come, it was going to come via some sort of restart.
The US, when they go back and watch the tape, will realize that they were asking for it. They dominated the first 30 minutes, they took a 1-0 lead in the 36th minute… and then they took just three more shots all game. The team that came out of the gates with so much purpose, and did such great work to get that 1-0 lead disappeared.
This brings us back to why set pieces are so important. It’s hard when you have two evenly matched teams – and that’s what the US and Wales are, mostly, despite vastly different approaches – for one to dominate the other for the entire time. Those in-between moments, then, become that much more important.
Wales won theirs. That’s how they got their point.
Just from a tactical standpoint, it played out as everyone expected, right? Wales are basically the Costa Rica of Europe – when the game state’s even they play that deep-lying 5-4-1, they only rarely leave space in behind, they’re excellent at fouling the hell out of you in high-leverage moments without earning yellows. It’s basically the modern version of catenaccio, in which they sacrifice both possession and field position for the chance to get in behind a half-dozen times, more or less, per game.
The US have been that in the past, but have spent decades dealing with a national inferiority complex because of it. And while other managers have made some progress toward becoming a team that “disorganizes opponents with the ball,” to borrow Gregg Berhalter’s phrasing, Berhalter is the first coach who’s really, really really committed to it.
Anybody who was around for World Cup qualifying remembers very well that it wasn’t always pretty, nor was it always effective. But it’s difficult to change decades worth of soccer culture, especially with a young team and especially on the fields and in the climatic conditions of Concacaf.
But on the manicured fields of the World Cup itself…
This doesn’t tell you everything you need to know about the game, obviously. But it tells you about the disposition for the first 45 minutes, which set the tone and defined the game state.
The other thing to understand from those graphics is that, while formations aren’t tactics, formations do inform tactics (and vice versa).
In this instance, you can see that the US met the Welsh 5-4-1 with their standard and typical 4-3-3. And when a 5-4-1 meets a 4-3-3, you’re almost guaranteed to see the team playing a 4-3-3 try to create wide overloads.
And for the most part, that’s exactly how the first half played out. The US did a good job of building sequences to try to pull Wales apart, but Wales – it’s who they are – did a very nice job of keeping their shape, keeping numbers in the box, and only rarely being threatened.
Of course, for all that about controlling tempo and disorganizing opponents with the ball, the US’s goal came off a pretty clinical counterattack:
There are three things to note on this sequence:
- The hold-up play of Josh Sargent, which drew a ton of justified praise. As mentioned in the tweet in the first section there, Sargent didn’t touch the ball much but he had a hell of an impact on the game.
- Walker Zimmerman is in the perfect position to support Tim Ream, who’s beaten in the air. And Zimmerman’s header isn’t just a clearance – it’s directly into space for Antonee Robinson, who subsequently takes the space with zero hesitation. Driving the game forward like that opened gaps in the Welsh line, and suddenly it’s Sargent to Pulisic to Weah to the back of the net.
- That finish from Weah was slick. Baited the Welsh keeper with his body shape and then side-footed past him… just lovely.
There was no little frustration in the US fanbase about Weah starting over Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna, but every attack needs at least one player who is always threatening that space in behind. Weah, of course, can do much more than that. He’s a multi-dimensional talent.
However, he's embraced “attack space” as his primary function for the US. Reyna doesn’t (he might eventually – he’s still young), and while Aaronson does, he’s not as fast as Weah nor does he provide the same cutting edge.
That balance is crucial to how the US want to attack, and how they actually did attack. Until they mostly stopped being able to.
So in the end, 1-1 was entirely fair, even if nobody probably left the stadium happy.
But at least, after a game full of moments to learn from, the US left themselves with plenty more to play for.