Tomase: Enjoy Friday vs. England, because the USMNT could be heading home soon originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
We're improving, but not ready.
That's the takeaway from just one U.S. game at the World Cup, where an American squad modestly hoping to reach the knockout stage instead stumbled into an opening draw vs. Wales with an English beatdown looming on Friday.
The oddsmakers gave the U.S. a slightly better than 50 percent chance of surviving the group stage before the tournament started, and they're slightly below 50 percent now. But whether they steal a point from England or beat Iran badly enough to advance on goal differential, we've already seen enough to know they're still four years away.
One of the youngest teams in the tournament, the U.S. did some good things vs. Wales on Monday, taking a 1-0 lead on a beautiful feed from Christian Pulisic to a streaking Timothy Weah, but it couldn't make it last. The moment Gareth Bale felt Walker Zimmerman's poorly timed challenge from behind and reflexively tumbled to draw a penalty, the clock started racing towards a United States elimination.
It shouldn't be a surprise, because for all the advances the U.S. has made since missing the last World Cup, we're still looking at a flawed team, at least on the biggest stage.
Watching the U.S. is a better experience than it used to be. The previous generation relied on the talented Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to create scoring chances, and Tim Howard to perform acrobatics in goal, but otherwise resembled a fourth line playing dump-and-chase. What the rest of the world calls the beautiful game, the U.S. stared at quizzically as if trying to decipher a work of abstract expressionism.
The USMNT actually dominated play vs. Wales, especially in the first half, but only to a point. Whereas the U.S. once built its attack around running onto low-percentage long balls, this group controlled possession for 60 percent of the game. Weah and fellow youngster Sergiño Dest penetrated the Welsh defense with overlapping runs on the right side, and Pulisic probed doggedly on the left.
If there's one problem that has plagued the U.S. pretty much forever, it's that all this buildup yields no payoff. Outside of Pulisic's perfectly timed through ball to Weah in the 36th minute, most of the U.S. possession could hardly be classified as dangerous, which helps explain how it put only one shot on goal.
The U.S. never challenged on any of its five corners, which Pulisic mostly hammered at a low angle. And even worse, it lacked any semblance of a plan on crosses, which either struck Welsh defenders or sailed harmlessly through the box. It was hard to tell whom they were even targeting.
For all of its promising young talent -- the 24-year-old Pulisic is actually something of an elder statesman -- the U.S. lacks a world-class finisher. The only one of those they've ever really produced is Dempsey, a daring opportunist who scored 57 goals in international competition but retired four years ago.
The role of goal scorer has been in flux for the last year, with teenager Ricardo Pepi briefly catching fire before being left off the roster entirely in favor of Josh Sargent and Haji Wright. The former went a year between appearances for the national team, but recently heated up for Norwich in the English second division. Meanwhile, only hardcore American fans had even heard of Wright, who erupted in the Turkish Super Lig for nine goals in 12 games to earn his spot.
U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter decided to ride the hot hand because his other options were uninspiring. The result is an offense that has to work harder than a pack mule to score. There isn't a player on the U.S. capable of creating the opportunity out of nothing that Bale turned into the tying penalty kick.
So they're probably going home next week, especially since the Iranians favor a pack-it-in-style that has given the U.S. fits for years back home in CONCACAF. The best stylistic matchup is actually probably England, since the center of its defense can be attacked with speed, but the world's fifth-rated team more than compensates with skill all over the field, whether it's storied striker Harry Kane or relentless winger Raheem Sterling. England's six goals vs. Iran weren't a fluke, nor was its run to the Euro finals vs. Italy last year.
The U.S., by contrast, is gaining experience for what is already being called its golden generation, led by Pulisic. Only three players on the roster are even 30, and most are under 25, whether it's midfielders Weston McKennie (age 24), Gio Reyna (20), Yunus Musah (19), and captain Tyler Adams (23), Dest (22) at right back, or Weah (22) on the wing. All play overseas in the world's best leagues, from England to Italy to Germany to Spain.
The real goal is to develop a legitimate team by 2026, when the U.S. will jointly host the World Cup with Canada and Mexico. Maybe by then soccer will be ready to enter our national conversation, with whatever happens in Qatar a necessary step in the journey.
For now, unfortunately, we should prepare for the American stay on the sport's biggest stage to be short.