Win, lose or draw – in the USMNT’s case a 1-1 draw against Wales on Monday – you know you will be at it again just four days after. It is all about rest and preparation for the second match, which could ultimately be the one to send you home or qualify you for the next round. That’s why I think the second match is just as important, if not more than the first.
I know most people will say the first match is more important. But if you lose that first match and win the next two, you are going to the Round of 16 with six points, which is extremely difficult to do.
For the US, that second match is a crucial clash against Group B favorites England on Friday (2 pm ET | FOX, Telemundo).
Easier said than done, right?
I was blessed to be able to play in four FIFA World Cups – 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014 – and I have experienced every result in the first match. As you can expect, each win, loss or draw came with a different set of emotions going into the second match.
Staying focused after winning
In South Korea/Japan in 2002, we were heavily the underdogs against the golden generation of Portugal, who had the likes of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, just to name a few. It was a hard-fought 3-2 result and after winning that match, I was exhausted, both mentally and physically. I can remember back in the locker room after the match, we all wanted to celebrate as if we had just won the World Cup. I know I did.
I was so happy I was not even thinking about the next match against South Korea. I was an inexperienced 20-year-old and I just thought every match was going to go like the first one. Little did I know the match against South Korea was going to be the most difficult of all the World Cup matches I ever played.
I had a decent start, but I did not have a good performance. My mentality was totally wrong and I didn’t even know it. I don’t think I was cocky, it was more me being naive in thinking I would perform as I did against Portugal. For this young USMNT in Qatar, focus is the key.
Fast forward to the World Cup in Brazil in 2014 where, in my opinion, we were placed in the group of death with Germany, Portugal and Ghana. Like in 2002, we won our first match against Ghana thanks to a phenomenal header by John Brooks off a corner in the 86th minute to give us a 2-1 win.
This time, my mindset was completely different going into that second match. I was a veteran in the group and felt confident, but not naive. I think a lot of my emotions and confidence going into that second match were because of how we won.
My level of confidence and mentality after both wins in 2002 and 2014 going into the second match were different. A lot of that had to do with my age, but the other part is taking it upon yourself to understand the situation you are in and using those feelings as fuel to help get the next result.
And as a group, man, you feel on top of the world. You just got three points in your first match at a World Cup. That’s something Gareth Bale and Wales took from this group in 2022.
Dealing with disappointment
When I look back at the 2006 World Cup in Germany, I can clearly remember going into the second match against Italy after an unforgettable night… and I do not mean that in a good way. You are not going to remember every single match you have ever played, but you will if it was either really bad or really good.
This was bad.
We were simply embarrassed and outplayed by a very good Czech Republic squad led by Pavel Nedved and Jan Koller. We lost 3-0.
You literally feel the weight of letting the whole country down. It almost drains you. It’s not just a regular loss or one where you can just say, "on to the next one." It is much deeper than that.
Most of the talk going into the second match against Italy was that, more than anything, we must stick together.
It wasn’t too much about tactics because we knew how to play and how we were going to play. It was more about how we respond if we end up going down 1-0 early. Claudio Reyna played a huge role in the days leading up to that Italy match. He was never a big talker, but you damn sure listened when he spoke. After a loss in a World Cup, you are looking for someone to have the answers, someone to motivate the group in a short turnaround. Claudio did that in his own way and we salvaged a 1-1 draw against the eventual champions.
Approaching that second match
The boys got off to a decent start against Wales but every USA fan – and player – knows it should have been three points. Well, we take the point and we keep it moving.
It was a tale of two halves: Dominant in the first half, which led to a big-time goal by Timothy Weah in his first appearance at a World Cup. But in the second half, they let Wales get back into the match.
It made me think back to our first match in World Cup 2010 in South Africa, where we had the same result against a very good England squad. The outlook then was different: we were happy with the draw. I do not think the USMNT will be happy or satisfied with the result against Wales. But then again, mathematically the chances remain the same, and in 2010 we made it out of the group.
I think the frustration from the Wales match could be a good thing for this young team, but they must forget about Wales and focus on England. This second match in the group stage is as crucial as it gets. It needs to be about getting a result against one of the favorites to win the World Cup. They can build from their performance against Wales, but their mentality must be positive going into the match on Friday.
Any player will tell you the best remedy for a disappointing result is having another match in the next few days.
Let’s hope the USMNT don't bring any leftover Wales energy into the match against England.