U.S. came up short once again at the World Cup. Here's why it felt different this time
For those stuck at work or school or perhaps whose only awareness that the World Cup was set to begin was that Qatar had banned Budweiser, the final result will elicit familiar feelings.
A tie. That’s it, a 1-1 tie? Another World Cup tie, a blown late lead to an aging team representing part of the United Kingdom with roughly the population of Iowa (3.1 million) making its first World Cup appearance in 64 years?
It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, let alone attention. We should be better than this. Points left on the table. Potential left to wilt in the Qatari heat. It was so familiar that someone might start with the old tired trope that the U.S. won’t ever be a good team until our best athletes play soccer, not basketball or football.
So, yeah, doubt is an understandable emotion considering the USMNT has won just two World Cup games across the past two decades. Another tie and another international competition where squeaking out of group play isn’t going to help.
Yet if you watched the Americans on Monday there was something different, this team was something different and it was obvious.
Make no mistake, this was a bad result for the Americans, a frustrating result because they were the better team Monday, often far better. They should have won 2-0, 3-0 and a proper team, a real contender, would have gotten that done.
Instead the U.S. missed numerous scoring chances, wasted a slew of impressive performances and made an obvious, 82nd-minute foul on Gareth Bale in the box to give up a penalty kick the Welsh legend waited a lifetime to bury.
The U.S. never should have conceded that goal or suffered through a frantic final 20 minutes of regulation or stoppage time.
It should have won.
It didn’t. It now ramps up the pressure for Friday’s game against a far more challenging England team.
And yet …
This was a different type of American team that delivered that very familiar result. The start of the game showed what this group of U.S. players can be, should be and likely will be.
They were bold. They were aggressive. There were stretches of domination. This was a fast, young, exciting and attacking team. This was 24-year-old Christian Pulisic showing every bit the superstardom that has long been promised of him, only now with the country watching.
This was the kind of soccer team that speaks to American sensibilities — confident and charismatic. It is a group that the country could rally around regardless of their technical knowledge.
For too long the U.S. has stepped into major international competitions and played on its heels, just hoping to survive, just hoping not to be humiliated and then trying to explain away often dull and limited results. For too long it felt hopeless.
It’s one thing to be bad, or at least mid. It’s another to be boring and bad.
Stereotypically there are two types of international sports to the average American fan: ones we are good at and dumb ones. The country isn’t much for being resigned to limited success, for just being there.
That wasn’t the case against Wales.
From the start, the Americans were the assertive side. They had better players, better possession, better pressure. They outclassed the Welsh with youth and creativity and sheer force.
It was Wales that was left trying to survive and praying for a counterattack. They got the call they needed and that keeps them alive. But they weren’t the better team.
This is everything you want style-wise out of U.S. Soccer. It was everything U.S. soccer fans have been begging to see. They need to bring it for 90 minutes, they need to be more consistent, but this was, at least, something.
This country has too many kids playing the sport, too many great athletes, too many young talents in major professional leagues to be anything but a darting, daring side. It’s why that basketball and football cliché has become so wearisome.
The U.S. has always been athletic enough. Lionel Messi stands 5-foot-7. Neymar weighs 150. These aren’t pitches full of LeBron Jameses or Tyreek Hills.
So often though, they didn’t play like Americans often do. Too often the team was meek, lacking the self-belief, even if unwarranted, that the country carries itself with. That changed Monday. Pulisic was a major part of it, a mega-talent with unlimited motor. But there was more. Timothy Weah, who scored in the 36th minute. Tyler Adams. Weston McKennie. Josh Sargent. And so on.
This was a 180 from the listless, lifeless pre-Cup friendlies that spoke to the same old, same old.
If they can get this going, if they can get into the knockout rounds, this could be a team that Americans finally truly rally behind. If ...
The U.S. didn’t win on Monday, because, well, they almost never win in World Cup play. They deserved to, though. They should have.
That isn’t enough. It should never be enough.
It was something different though, even if the score suggests otherwise.