It got the result it had to have. Had the US men’s soccer team fallen to Wales in its World Cup opener Monday afternoon, it likely would have been doomed.
The Americans never have advanced when they’ve been beaten in their first outing, so a 1-1 draw with a physical and more experienced European side was auspicious.
That said, three points were there for the taking, and the US team came out with just one after Welsh icon Gareth Bale equalized with a penalty kick in the 82nd minute.
“We gave them a lifeline,” said US goalie Matt Turner. “We dropped two points.”
Perhaps it would have been different had the Yanks kept pushing after Tim Weah’s brilliant strike in the 36th minute and put up a second goal before halftime. Or if defender Walker Zimmerman hadn’t imprudently challenged Bale in the box and given the Welsh a gift from the spot.
But this young American bunch still is learning how to win, how to close out matches when its in the lead in the final 20 minutes, how to plunge in the dagger when the moment is there.
Had the Americans done it in their opener, they could have gone into Friday’s clash with England in fine position to grab one of the top two spots in Group B. Now the US team may need to get a draw and then a victory over Iran next week to avoid having to play the goal-differential game with the Welsh.
Still, it was a decent outcome for a program that didn’t make it to the Cup in 2018 and that had to go down to the final match at Costa Rica to earn its ticket to Qatar.
Since 1990, every time the Yanks extracted a result from their first game — the draw with Switzerland in 1994, the victory over Portugal in 2002, the draw with England in 2010, and the triumph over Ghana in 2014 — they’ve gone on to the second round where they’re customarily a tough out.
Nobody quite knew how the encounter with Wales would go. The Dragons hadn’t made it to the quadrennial dance since 1958 when they were knocked out by Brazil and a teenaged Pele. They needed to win two playoff games to get here and hadn’t won a match since, finishing in last place in their Nations League group.
But the Americans had been blanked in their last two tuneups against Japan and Saudi Arabia and arrived in the Middle East full of question marks. Did they have a striker in the mode of Clint Dempsey? Would their central defense hold up? How sound would Turner be coming off a groin strain?
What they knew they absolutely could not do was fall behind. The Americans are 0-18-5 in Cup matches when they concede the first goal. Being forced to chase the game at the global level usually is fatal.
So they came out exactly as they needed to, pushing upfield against a Welsh bunch that kept all 11 in their own half. For a stunning flash in the ninth minute, it seemed that the Dragons would hand the United States the first one when defender Joe Rodon headed the ball toward his own keeper. But Wayne Hennessey blocked it.
The Americans’ audacity finally was rewarded when Christian Pulisic connected with Weah on the run and Weah scored with the outside of his right foot in a lovely finish.
“It was not a good first half, to be honest,” said Bale, who personally got his country into the planetary reunion for the first time in 64 years. “They played really well and we were poor.”
Once coach Rob Page put in Kieffer Moore, his 6-foot-5inch striker, at intermission, everything changed.
“Wales went very direct in the second half,” said US coach Gregg Berhalter. “They’ve got a big team and that made it difficult.”
When the match came down to the final 10 minutes. it looked as if the Americans just might hang on. Then Zimmerman fouled Bale from behind and the chance vanished.
“When we got the penalty. we knew who was taking it, 1 million percent,” said Page. “He’s never let us down.”
It was Bale who scored all three goals in the playoff victories over Austria and Ukraine. He took a deep breath then slammed the ball to the right side beyond Turner’s reach.
From there the Americans had to sweat out 17 more minutes, including nine in stoppage time, to salvage the draw.
“The most important thing was that we didn’t lose,” said Weah. “We kept a tie and now we just focus on the next game.”
That game will come against an England side that finished fourth last time and walloped Iran, 6-2, earlier in the day. But manager Gareth Southgate is wary of the Americans, who beat the English in 1950 in the greatest upset in Cup history and came from behind for a draw a dozen years ago.
“They’re going to be coming for us full throttle,” Southgate said. “And we’re going to have to reset.”
So will the US team, which now needs to take at least a point from the Three Lions and likely three from Iran. Still, they’re in decidedly better shape than were their 1990, 1998, and 2006 predecessors, who dropped their openers and went three and out.
The secret to survival in the Cup is not to trip coming out of the gate. That mission, at least, was accomplished in Al Rayyan.
John Powers can be reached at email@example.com.