USA’s European elite sparkle then fizzle on World Cup return against Wales

<span>Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Xinhua/REX/Shutterstock

For the better part of 80 minutes on a cool Monday night in the Arabian desert west of Doha, it looked like the United States’ much talked-about golden generation was finally taking flight, perhaps ahead of schedule. More than five years after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup and nearly eight-and-a-half years since their most recent appearance at the tournament, the second-youngest team in Qatar were making a swaggering return to the sport’s biggest stage.

Christian Pulisic was dribbling out of pressure, running at defenders and creating attacking chances from nothing. Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson were making swashbuckling overlapping runs and firing away from distance with confidence and verve. The gifted midfield trio of Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah were doing the lung-bursting box-to-box handiwork that have become their hallmark. One of the youngest teams the United States has ever fielded at a World Cup, operating with a collective poise and composure beyond their experience level and an edge of aggression promised by their manager, kept rapping at the door until bursting through with a goal nine minutes before half-time.

Even as Wales fine-tuned their tactics and ramped up the pressure after half-time, the young Americans held their nerve and appeared bound for three points and a dream start. That is, until the 82nd minute, when US center-back Walker Zimmerman recklessly hacked down Gareth Bale from behind in the penalty area with his opponent’s back to goal. By the time the Nashville SC defender’s animated reaction (“No, no, no, no!”) was picked up by the television cameras, the referee was pointing to the spot.

Related: Gareth Bale’s penalty rescues point for Wales in World Cup opener with USA

Within moments, Bale had fired the penalty past the fingertips of Matt Turner to rescue a point for the team the Welshman almost single-handedly carried back to their first World Cup finals since 1958.

“From his vantage point, [Zimmerman] thought he was going to be first to the ball,” Berhalter said after the game. “It is what it is.”

There may be no more frequently cited reason for optimism around the United States these days than just how many Americans – far more than ever before – have gone abroad to ply their trade during their teenage years. More than half of Berhalter’s 26-man squad for Qatar compete in the world’s top five leagues, including Pulisic (Chelsea), McKennie (Juventus), Dest (Milan) and Adams (Leeds United), the team’s newly minted captain.

Berhalter’s team selection for Monday’s match, and how he valued MLS-based players in a contest the United States simply couldn’t afford to lose, spoke volumes. All but one of his 11 starters represented clubs in Europe, the highest number ever for a US lineup in a World Cup match. Six players feature in England, two in Italy, and one each in France and Spain. The lone starter from Major League Soccer? You might have guessed it.

That’s not to pick on Zimmerman, who can’t be feeling particularly good about costing his team so dearly on their World Cup return. Nor on America’s top division, which has made enormous strides in quality since its inception a quarter-century ago and continues to do so much to grow the game stateside.

Walker Zimmerman gave away the penalty that earned Wales a draw
Walker Zimmerman gave away the penalty that earned Wales a draw. Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters

But for those who believe the United States won’t truly be able to contend at the World Cup as long as MLS players are featuring in the national team, well … it is what it is.

Even as the United States showed growing pains in the extended run-up to Qatar, Berhalter has resisted the notion that his aggressive youth movement was more about looking ahead to the World Cup four years from now, when the US will be co-hosts and today’s core players will be in their presumptive primes. “We want to build a ton of momentum going into 2026,” he said last week. “But it all starts now.”

He wasn’t kidding. And the first half of Monday’s match offered a glimmer of the higher ground where the US team could be headed. But Zimmerman’s costly blunder showed just how far the Americans have to go while largely brushing aside what should have been the story of the night: Tim Weah scoring for the United States at the tournament his famous father never got to play in.

It isn’t always easy being the son of a head of state, much less the offspring of the greatest African footballer who ever lived. The shadow cast by George Weah – star striker for AS Monaco, Paris Saint-Germain and Milan and the only African winner of Fifa’s World Player of the Year and the Ballon d’Or – was a lengthy one even before he was elected president of Liberia.

The younger Weah was eligible to play for France, Jamaica and Liberia through residency and his parents’ citizenships, but opted for the United States (he was born in New York and spent parts of his childhood there and in Florida) and came up through the US youth system. After scoring on his international debut in a 2018 friendly against Bolivia and becoming the fourth-youngest player to score a goal for the US, Weah managed to maintain a foothold in the team despite a brutal litany of injuries.

On Monday, Berhalter’s faith paid off handsomely when Weah, now 22, conjured the would-be winner following a burst forward and perfectly threaded pass by Pulisic. That made him the first player to score against Wales in a World Cup since a 17-year-old upstart named Pele eliminated them from the quarter-finals back in 1958.

Now the United States look ahead to Friday’s match with England and next Tuesday’s group-stage finale against Iran, who famously eliminated the US from the 1998 World Cup. The path to the knockout stage is still right there from Berhalter’s romper room, only more difficult than it needed to be.