The tournament-opening hiccup against Wales was a disappointment for the USMNT and fans alike, but with their significantly more formidable neighbors next in line, the team will have to regroup and fight for a result under significant pressure.
Against all odds, the crafty USMNT head coach displayed his unparalleled tactical nous on Monday night to somehow guide his young charges to an unlikely draw against the heavy group favorites from the jolly island of Great Britain, albeit one helped by a mistake in the penalty area.
Oh wait, I forgot it’s not 2010. Apparently that self-induced concussion I gave myself in the 82nd minute of Monday’s game while beating my head against my desk is still taking its toll on my memory.
Monday’s opener to the 2022 tournament saw Gregg Berhalter’s young Americans blow a narrow 1-0 lead – one which didn’t fairly parlay their significant first-half advantage – in deflating fashion to settle for a (probably deserved) 1-1 draw against Wales.
It’s hard to pinpoint one culprit in the disappointment, as Berhalter’s questionable second-half tactics and substitutions, unexploited chances by the team in the first half, and the unnecessary penalty concession by Walker Zimmerman all contributed equally.
Regardless of the the object of blame – which is by popular demand falling mostly on the coach – the team is in a tough position heading into their second game against the overwhelming group favorites England.
If there could be claims of fans and the team underestimating the 19th ranked Wales team, there will be no such accusations for the English, who stormed past 20th ranked Iran in their opening game by a 6-2 margin.
Bukayo Saka was the star, netting a pair of goals and generally being a terror for the Iranian defenders. However, it’s hard to pick out any poor performers amidst the English team, even the much maligned Harry Maguire, who not only didn’t cost his team the game, but also racked up an assist in the process.
If there were any possible weaknesses to the English team evident from their opener, it was in their wasteful concession of a pair of goals to their completely overwhelmed Iranian opposition. In general, fortifying the midfield and finding a way to thwart the significant English firepower in the attack, while rapidly and predatorily exploiting any momentary lapses in their less impressive defense with a stable of speedy front-line US attackers could be the best course of action by Berhalter.
What can be expected tactically of the coach’s starting XI is far less predictable than four days before, when all but two of the starters could be named by any half-knowledgeable fan without any questions.
Much of the criticism surrounding Berhalter’s personnel choices are centering on the fact that 20 year-old star Gio Reyna did not play for a single second against Wales, and England-based Brenden Aaronson was only saved for a second-half substitute role. Whether this signals either of the young stars being in strong contention for a starting spot is anybody’s guess (even if it is most armchair fans’ wish), although adjustments must, and most likely will be made.
Based on Monday’s performance, and overall fitness & form, one likely shift could be of Juventus man Weston McKennie, who is on a yellow, to the bench in favor of Kellyn Acosta or Luca de la Torre. In the case of an Acosta switch, the addition of a second defensive-minded holding midfielder to complement team captain Tyler Adams could create an opening for Aaronson to replace Yunus Musah and assume more of a central attacking role.
The exact makeup of the front line will also be an enigma until shortly before kickoff. Christian Pulisic’s star status and Tim Weah’s excellent performance on Monday as the goalscorer should be enough to guarantee their spots.
While Josh Sargent was by all means a solid performer positioned between the two, he could be sacrificed for any tactical machinations that Berhalter has in his head, or alternatively keep his spot due to playing week-in and week-out against English players not good enough to play in the same division as Friday’s opposition.
Conversely, the back-end of the field is likely to avoid any major changes. Apart from Zimmerman’s gaffe in the area to trigger the equalizer, the back-four of Sergiño Dest, Tim Ream, Zimmerman and Antonee Robinson were generally solid, and it would be a surprise to see any of them replaced.
Dest is on a yellow, so he could be switched out for DeAndre Yedlin at some point in the game, however should still get the starting nod.
Similarly, apart from being unable to stop Gareth Bale’s unstoppable spot kick blast, few major criticisms could be made of Matt Turner’s performance on Monday, and only meteor strike on the team hotel would keep him out of the nets on Friday.
In terms of scenarios in the standings, a loss by the Americans will put them in a tough position, however one which can still see advancement if results go favorably in the final round. The game between Wales and Iran kicking off seven hours before will hold a huge significance on their target against the group leaders.
Clearly, Iran underperformed on Monday, so the hope would be a full recovery and victory over the Welsh, setting up a likely winner-takes-all final matchup the following Tuesday against the Americans.
Still, this World Cup has been one with multiple shocking results, including wins by both of the teams that gave the Americans troubles in their final two warm-up games. A US win over England would certainly be less improbable than Saudi Arabia’s vanquishing of Argentina or Japan’s back-hand slap of ze Germans.
Regardless of any fancy words, fancier analysis, or harebrained predictions by the fleets of talking heads pretending to be seasoned analysts (guilty as charged), all bets will be off when the two teams kick off at 2pm Eastern Time, 8pm Central European time at the Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor.