August 11, 2022

Christian Pulisic
Photo: PA

The USMNT played two friendlies this week, and in a normal year, those would be the “Dispatch World Cup” matches where the roster would essentially be finalized. They would have been much more intensely watched by Gregg Berhalter and the fans, with the final cuts following soon after. The games against Morocco and Uruguay still had spice – it was refreshing to see the United States take on anyone outside of CONCACAF for once – and there were new wrinkles in tactics and players. But thanks to the Winter World Cup, via the criminal act of handing it over to Qatar, those friendlies could be rendered worthless if there was a combination of injury or loss of form in the fall.

We’ll get to that, but the biggest development for the USMNT came thousands of miles away in Cardiff, where Wales beat Ukraine 1-0 to complete the US World Cup group. On the first day of the tournament, the United States will end the schedule against Wales.

It is admittedly unforgiving to say that the United States is probably relieved not to have to play the role of Ukraine’s opponent in the opening game. Unless you wore the Welsh Dragon somewhere on your person yesterday, you were probably hoping Ukraine would come through and give its people something, anything, to be happy about. It was one of those occasions when the sport achieved something more and the feeling that the Ukrainian players were playing for something much more noble than just a place in the World Cup. As good as Wales’ history is, it’s their first World Cup finish in 64 years, the shots from the Ukrainian fans and their mounting angst as time neared a goalless 90 minutes was difficult to cash. It was clear what it all meant to everyone.

So yeah, Ukraine in the World Cup would have been a great story, although it probably didn’t do much to address the real problem of, you know, the invasion of their country by a crank dictator trying to revive the last century. Yet we’ve seen it before, like Croatia’s run to the semi-finals in 1998 in France shortly after gaining independence. A team not only bringing an entire nation together or lifting them out of misery, but lifting them to new heights.

But sport doesn’t always give you a happy ending, although the Wales ending his drought of appearing on the biggest stage isn’t exactly the villain twirling his mustache and smiling at the end. It’s not scripted, and sometimes the feel-good factor just doesn’t happen because the other team’s keeper is standing on his head (Wayne Hennessey, nine stops, hello).

And for matters strictly on the field, although these are very serious issues off the field, the USMNT will be happy to pass the responsibility of hosting Ukraine in the World Cup. It would be condescending to “let” Ukraine pass, but it must be incredibly awkward for opponents to play against a team that knows what Ukraine is playing for. They might have been the biggest story in Qatar if they had qualified, everyone would have been in favor of them, and the United States as an opponent would have dragged them into discussions about the fact that the United States would be tied to the conflict with Russia, whether it wanted it or not. not. There is already this aspect in the third match of the United States against Iran.

It’s a tricky group, but hardly impossible, and while they’ll never admit it publicly, American players are probably relieved that they didn’t start the tournament with an incredibly inspired opponent and then have to face the England heavyweight with the group stage ending. against Iran for whom it will be their biggest game since… well, the last time they faced the United States at a World Cup in 1998. It also saves them having to play bad guys , those who try to ruin the uplifting history of the tournament .

Not that Wales is a walk in the park. They were unimpressive against Ukraine, and were played out of the park at times. But they do the thing that this American team struggled against, and that’s a low bunker block around their penalty area and then let Gareth Bale conjure up something from a free kick. That’s exactly what they did on Sunday. Even though Bale might not play at a football club until the World Cup, and even if he signs with someone after his contract expires at Madrid, he might very well not play at any. football club given what we have seen in Madrid in recent years, something happens to Bale when he puts on his Wales shirt. You should already prepare to shit your lunch when he lines up a free kick on November 21.

That’s apparently what Berhalter was trying to address against Morocco with a slight change in formation with the ball on Wednesday night. When in possession, USA pushed Jedi Robinson (still getting used to ‘Jedi’) to the front row, used Reggie Cannon as third centre-back and played a 3- 2-5 with the ball. Brenden Aaronson was moved into the center of midfield, and with Robinson taking the left wing, Christian Pulisic also moved inside, as he and Aaronson played between Tim Weah, Jesus Ferreira and Robinson. The idea was to A) give the United States more options against a compact defense, as these five players could link up and move anywhere, and B) intensify their pressure when they lost the ball. Assuming health and form, here’s what it could very well look like against Wales.

There were issues in the Morocco and Uruguay games, including the United States not scoring in the latter. Secondly, Morocco sometimes managed to get out of the American press too easily by passing the ball from one side to the other, and the United States seemed confused as to who would take the man receiving this cross pass from 50 meters, leaving acres of space. And there won’t be much time to settle this. There are just two Nations League games this week, not great preparation for World Cup opponents, and two friendlies in September. There is only about a week of training between the end of club seasons in November and the start of the tournament. Expecting a tight ship in Qatar is probably a vain hope.

Given the expansive play Ukraine showed against Scotland and Wales, the United States will be relieved to see a more limited opponent, even if accompanied by a full wild card like Bale. They’ll also be relieved to just be able to play a World Cup game, instead of having a two-ton narrative over it.