AL KHOR, Qatar — The U.S. men’s national team outplayed and at times even dominated England at the World Cup on Friday night, and before we get to the result or the implications, it’s worth letting that sink in.
The Americans outran and outclassed the Englishmen. They outthought and almost overwhelmed a 2022 World Cup favorite. They proved that progress is very real and the future is very bright, but, after 90 intense minutes at the Al Bayt Stadium, they had nothing to show for it.
But the performance was emphatic, resplendent, inspiring and authoritative — and just what the USMNT had promised it would be.
They came with audacity and exuberance, with confidence and belief, with grand plans to impose themselves on the self-proclaimed inventors of the sport. “We are going to hurt them,” U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter said on Thursday. “We know it's a very good [England] team, we know they have threats, we know we have to be cautious about their threats. But we want to play our game.”
And they did.
For 15 minutes, they fought off nerves, and survived early scares. Then they grew into the game and, by midway through the first half, took control of it.
They sat in a 4-4-2 without the ball, an adjustment from the Wales game, and corrected a few structural flaws early. Then they began breaking. Weston McKennie propelled them forward. England, suddenly, rocked back onto its heels.
They were playing against a team of Premier League stars, a team worth more than half a billion dollars. And they, at one point in their lives, were overlooked teens, or second-division players, or even backup small-college goalkeepers.
Here was McKennie, often cut by youth national teams, spinning around a Brit in midfield and driving into the penalty area.
Here was Walker Zimmerman, the pride of Furman University, stepping in for massive blocks.
Here was Haji Wright, finally in the USMNT after five really difficult young-adult years, trying to turn an England defender in the box.
Here was Matt Turner, he of SportsCenter Not Top 10 infamy as a sophomore at Fairfield University, springing to his right for key saves, and pinging 70-yard half-volleys to Pulisic on a dime.
And here was Pulisic ripping a left-footed shot off the crossbar.
Pulisic was THIS CLOSE to putting USA ahead 😱pic.twitter.com/kxUsQzddy5
— Yahoo Sports (@YahooSports) November 25, 2022
“It’s called soccer!,” thousands of American fans chanted, as their English counterparts dug their chins into their palms.
The U.S. played without fear, just as players said they would. “Intimidation factors?” midfielder Tyler Adams said when asked about them at a day-before news conference. “I wouldn't say there are many things out there that intimidate me, other than spiders.”
A day later, he scurried around midfield, and dashed back to break up an early second-half attack with a colossal tackle on Bukayo Saka. He beat Mason Mount to balls, and kept England penned into its own defensive third.
The Americans stayed on the front foot after halftime. They won a few corners. And Pulisic, after winding up the U.S. fans behind the south goal, delivered three consecutive corners that required towering interventions from Harry Maguire in the six-yard box.
After 70 minutes, England regained its footing, and the game slowed. Chances dried up. And costly first-half misses, most notably McKennie’s, loomed large.
Oh my 😳
What a CHANCE for Weston McKennie pic.twitter.com/uRMhyV5MVw
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 25, 2022
The USMNT had, by then, already made its point. Perhaps it hadn’t thoroughly “changed the way the world views American soccer,” as has been its stated goal, but it certainly took a step in that direction.
It will, though, be all for naught if it can’t beat Iran, whose stoppage-time stunners against Wales hours earlier changed the Group B calculus for the USMNT. Americans spent months calibrating their expectations as if a draw with England would be a good result, and that’s what the U.S. eventually got. But Iran’s win deflated the utility of a draw.
So it is win-and-in versus Iran on Tuesday (2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo). Anything else will send the Americans home after just nine days. Their backs are officially against the wall, and their chests will likely ram into a parked Iranian bus.
They have been impressive. But their World Cup, after 180 minutes, hangs squarely in the balance.