DOHA, Qatar – It was a tie that felt like a loss and almost was a loss until it wasn’t.
Kellyn Acosta’s foul on Gareth Bale in stoppage time saved the U.S. men from a loss Monday night and might very well have saved their World Cup, too. With England looking like the clear favorite to win the group after its 6-2 shellacking of Iran earlier in the day, every point matters, and the USMNT is better having one from this game rather than none.
“That’s a man-of-the-match play right there. I’m super proud of him,” said Tim Weah, whose goal in the 36th minute seemed as if it would be enough to get the Americans a victory and the three points that come with it.
It would have been a massive result for a team that’s as young as it is talented, giving them an extra boost of confidence heading into Friday’s game against England.
But in the 81st, Walker Zimmerman went to clear the ball and got Gareth Bale instead. It was a clear penalty, the kind of mistake that showed the U.S. men’s inexperience. You can’t give someone like Bale, who is playing in the World Cup for the first time in his illustrious career, a gift like that, because he’s going to take full advantage.
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And he did. Matt Turner guessed correctly on where Bale was going to shoot. Even got a hand on the ball. But Turner couldn’t tip the ball around the post and it flew past him and into the corner of the net. After dominating Wales for most of the night, playing with the swagger and poise they’d promised would make up for the fact that only one member of their team had played in a World Cup game before, the Americans were going to have to settle for a draw and disappointment.
Then, it almost got worse.
With a minute left in stoppage time, Bale had the ball with an open field in front of him and Turner out of the goal. That’s a gimme for any player, let alone someone as skilled as Bale, and the Wales fans were on their feet in anticipation.
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But Acosta chased his Los Angeles FC teammate down and fouled him. There would be no goal and, more importantly for the Americans, no loss.
“That I just had to do it. A player of his quality, he’ll probably put it in,” Acosta said of what he was thinking as he sprinted after Bale. “I’ve got to do whatever I can do to put him off.”
With two games still to play, a loss wouldn’t have doomed the USMNT’s chances of advancing to the knockout rounds. But it sure wouldn’t have helped – especially if England continues to be as ruthless as it was Monday.
In their seven appearances since returning to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year absence, the Americans have reached the knockout rounds four times. Each time, they won or drew in their opener. The three times they didn’t?
It was after a loss in the first game.
“Each game is really important. Obviously we wanted the three points but coming out with a point puts us in a decent position,” Acosta said. “A step in the right direction … and we move forward.”
Disappointing as the result was – and it’s a credit to the Americans that they called it a disappointment, rather than happily accepting the tie – there are important lessons in it for this young team.
The USMNT dominated Wales to the point of frustration in the first half, with Christian Pulisic shredding Wales’ defense and Weah repeatedly getting behind its back line. But the Americans weren’t as energetic in the second half. Wales bringing on Kieffer Moore had something to do with it, but the U.S. players acknowledged that they backed off, too.
“We just dropped off a bit in the second half,” Pulisic said.
They can’t do that, not for a second. They also can’t waste scoring chances like they did in the first half. Josh Sargent had a chance to score in the 10th minute when Wales goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy bungled the ball after a teammate headed it back to him and hit him in the chest. But Sargent was just a few steps up too far, and his header hit the post.
Sergino Dest skied a shot and Pulisic had at least two cleared.
“The first half was great. We didn’t score as much as we probably should have, and that ended up costing us,” Turner said.
Not as much as it could have. But more than it should have.