There are good reasons for the United States to be favored over Wales when they meet in a World Cup Group B opener Monday.
First off, coach Gregg Berhalter built a squad specifically to contend with the physicality of the Welsh and English teams.
Most of the US starters compete for Premier League teams — goalkeeper Matt Turner (Arsenal); defenders Tim Ream and Antonee “Jedi” Robinson (Fulham); midfielders Brenden Aaronson and Tyler Adams (Leeds United); winger Christian Pulisic (Chelsea). Forward Josh Sargent (Norwich City) made the roster over Ricardo Pepi because Sargent is competing in the League Championship.
Also, though nine Welshmen are in the Premier League, only Ben Davies (Tottenham) is with a top-level club.
The US won’t be able to overpower the Welsh, but can control possession if it can establish itself physically, providing the chance for individual enterprise from Sergino Dest, Weston McKennie, or Pulisic to make the difference. Wales will enter the match with a similar thought process, hoping to contain the US, then rely on Gareth Bale, Daniel James, or Kieffer Moore to break through.
This game will likely start off fast, both teams relying on aggression and speed — at least for the first 15-20 minutes, or as long as it takes for them to realize they need to pace themselves. There will be lots of pent-up energy — the teams have been anticipating this matchup since June, and they will have to wait until 10 p.m. local time for kickoff.
Though this is the opener of group stage matches, it is considered a must-win. Neither team should plan to overtake England for first place in Group B, but winning the opener should guarantee a second-place finish.
As much as both teams believe victory is their ticket to the second round, they also realize defeat likely would be fatal. That means a cautious mind-set at the back — nobody will want to take risks, but they will need to remain composed and not resort to panicky clearances.
The US uses a 4-3-3 alignment, relying on high energy, high pressing, and the youthful enthusiasm of the second-youngest roster in the tournament. The central midfielders have developed chemistry and can keep possession, allowing the team to get forward on the wings.
Wales counters with a 3-4-2-1 setup, modified into a five-man back line as midfielders retreat into defense. The plan is to clog the midfield, limit the US outside threats, and counterattack.
Matchups: US vs. Wales
Goalkeeper: Matt Turner vs. Wayne Hennessey
Edge: Turner. Both are reserves in the Premier League. Turner, 28, who has displayed remarkable instincts, is coming off a groin injury and has not played in more than a month. The 6-foot-6-inch Hennessey boasts experience — at 35, he has played 16 professional seasons and totaled 106 caps for Wales.
Center backs: Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, Tim Ream vs. Joe Rodon, Ethan Ampadu.
Edge: Wales. Welsh defenders play in top European leagues; Ampadu adds mobility.
Outside backs: Sergino Dest, Antonee Robinson vs. Neco Williams, Ben Davies.
Edge: Wales. Davies is a natural left back, clutch performer, able to adjust to demands of Spurs coach Antonio Conte.
Wings: Brenden Aaronson, Christian Pulisic, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah vs. Daniel James, Connor Roberts, Harry Wilson.
Edge: US. Pulisic, Reyna, and Weah break down defenses via dribbling ability, speed. Aaronson is a disruptive presence, also confident in possession. James is a natural finisher but has only 11 goals in three-plus Premier League seasons.
Central midfield: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah vs. Joe Allen, Aaron Ramsey.
Edge: US. Adams, McKennie, and Musah are young but performing at a high level. Allen (hamstring) could miss opener, Wales moving Ampadu alongside Ramsey.
Forwards: Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent vs. Gareth Bale, Kieffer Moore.
Edge: Wales. Primary task for Ferreira or Sargent will be to pressure Hennessey and the Wales back line in possession. Bale specializes in game-breaking plays, combining power in the air with a rocket left foot; he also contributes inspired touches and adds poise in possession.
Coaches: Gregg Berhalter vs. Robert Page.
Edge: US. Berhalter has World Cup experience as a player, starting when the US reached the 2002 quarterfinals and on the bench in ‘06.
The US and Wales tied, 0-0, in a closed-door contest in Cardiff in 2020. From that game, only three Wales starters and six US starters are expected to be in the lineup Monday.
Wales reserve striker Brennan Johnson’s father, David, scored a goal for Jamaica in a 2-2 tie with the US in Kingston in 1999.
Berhalter and Page were central defenders during their playing days. They met in a League Championship match in February 2002; Page’s Sheffield United defeating Berhalter’s Crystal Palace, 1-0.
Referee Abdulrahman Al-Jassim (Qatar) is young (35), has little high-level experience.