The USMNT played two friiendlies this week, and in a normal year these would be the “World Cup Sendoff” games where the roster would basically be finalized. They would have been a lot more intensely watched by both Gregg Berhalter and fans alike, with the final cuts following soon after. The matches against Morocco and Uruguay still had some spice–it was refreshing to see the US play anyone outside CONCACAF for once — and there were some new wrinkles in tactics and players. But thanks to the winter World Cup, via the criminal act of handing it to Qatar, these friendlies could be rendered worthless if there’s a combination of injuries or loss of form in the fall.
We’ll get to that, but the biggest development for the USMNT came thousands of miles away in Cardiff, where Wales beat Ukraine 1-0 to round out the USA’s World Cup group. On the tournament’s opening day, the US will finish out the schedule facing Wales.
It’s admittedly callous to say the US probably is relieved to not have to play the role of Ukraine’s opponent in the opening match. Unless you were sporting the Welsh Dragon somewhere on your person yesterday, you were probably hoping Ukraine would get through and give their people something, anything, to be happy about. It was one of those occasions where sports rise to something more, and the sense that the Ukrainian players were playing for something much loftier than just a World Cup berth. As good of a story as Wales is, this is their first World Cup berth in 64 years, the shots of the Ukrainian fans and their increasing anguish as the clock ticked closer to 90 minutes without a goal was hard to take. It was clear what it all meant to everyone.
So yeah, Ukraine in the World Cup would have been a great story, though probably not done much to solve the actual problem of, y’know, their country being invaded by an unhinged dictator trying to make the last century happen again. Still, we’ve seen it before, such as Croatia’s run to the semis in 1998 in France shortly after gaining their independence. A team not just bringing a whole nation together or out of misery but lifting them to new heights.
But sports doesn’t always give you the happy ending, even if Wales ending their drought of appearing on the biggest stage isn’t exactly the villain twirling his mustache and grinning at the end. It isn’t scripted, and sometimes the feel-good factor just doesn’t happen because the other team’s keeper is standing on his head (Wayne Hennessey, nine saves, hello).
And for strictly on the field matters, though it has to do with very heavy off-the-field issues, the USMNT will be happy to duck the responsibility of welcoming Ukraine into the World Cup. It would be patronizing to “let” Ukraine through, but it must be incredibly awkward for opponents to play a team knowing what Ukraine is playing for. They would have been maybe the biggest story in Qatar had they qualified, everyone would have been rooting for them, and the US as an opponent would have dragged them into discussions about the US being tied up in the conflict with Russia whether they like it or not. There’s already that aspect to the US’s third match against Iran.
It’s a tricky group, but hardly impossible, and though they’ll never admit it publicly the US players are probably relieved to not have start the tournament with an incredibly inspired opponent and then having to face the heavy of England with the group stage rounding off against Iran for whom it will be their biggest game since…well, the last time they played the US in a World Cup in 1998. It also saves them from having to play the villain, the ones trying to ruin the uplifting story of the tournament.
Not that Wales is a walkover. They were hardly impressive against Ukraine, and at times were played off the park. But they do the thing that this US team has struggled against, and that’s a low block bunkered in around their penalty box and then let Gareth Bale conjure up something from a freekick. Which is exactly what they did on Sunday. Even though Bale might not play any club soccer between now and the World Cup, and even if he signs with someone after his Madrid contract ran out he still very well might not play any club soccer given what we saw in Madrid the past few years, something happens to Bale when pulling on his Wales shirt. You should already prepare to shit out your lunch when he’s lining up a set-piece come November 21st.
Which was seemingly what Berhalter was trying to address against Morocco with a slight formation shift with the ball on Wednesday night. When in possession, the US pushed Jedi Robinson (still getting used to “Jedi”) all the way up into the front line, used Reggie Cannon as a third centerback, and played a 3-2-5 with the ball. Brenden Aaronson was shifted into the center of midfield, and with Robinson taking the left wing, Christian Pulisic moved inside too, as he and Aaronson played in between Tim Weah, Jesus Ferreira, and Robinson. The idea of this was to A) give the US more options when facing a packed defense as those five could link and move anywhere, and B) intensify their press when losing the ball. Assuming health and form, this is what it very well may look like against Wales.
There were issues in both the Morocco and Uruguay games, notably that the US didn’t score in the latter. Secondly, Morocco was able to get out of the US’s press too easily at times by switching the ball from one side to the other, and the US seemed confused as to who would take the man receiving that 50-yard, cross-field pass, leaving acres of space. And there isn’t going to be a lot of time to sort this out. There’s only two Nations League games this week, which aren’t great prep for World Cup opponents, and two friendlies in September. There’s only about a week of practice time from when club seasons will shut down in November to the start of the tournament. Expecting a tight ship in Qatar is probably a forlorn hope.
Given the expansive play Ukraine showed against both Scotland and Wales, the US will be relieved to see a more limited opponent, even if it comes with a complete wildcard like Bale. They’ll also be relieved to just get to play a World Cup game, instead of having a two-ton narrative dropped on top of it.