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Al Rayyan, Qatar. Christian Pulisic waited 1868 days and Tim Weah almost that long to hear the roar. They survived the darkest five years in the history of American football for nights like Monday, for the opportunity to get the nation back on its feet, for the chance to get their whole life up on the World Cup stage. They suffered, cast aside doubt, and persevered to feel the blast. At 10:36 pm here at the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, they scored the goal that provoked it, and for an hour it looked like they had beaten the US men’s team in the first leg of the 2022 World Cup.
But in the 82nd minute, Gareth Bale provoked a louder explosion. And the USMNT had to settle for a 1-1 draw with Wales.
They were superior, while they were superior, for 45 minutes. They then retreated and tried to ride out the Welsh storm. They held it for 35 minutes. But as the pressure mounted, Walker Zimmerman fouled Bale in the penalty area. Bale converted from the penalty spot. And what could have been a dazzling, uplifting night turned raw.
A draw is not catastrophic. He still leaves the US as the favorite to exit Group B. But the bottom line will be tinged with disappointment. Yes, and the pressure on Friday on England will be strong.
It also felt like a missed opportunity. Weah’s goal after Pulisic slipped past the Welsh felt like the start of a new era, a moment for the country to come together, the start of what could be a very special World Cup.
Instead, the emotions are mixed, complex, and conflicting. The first half was promising. There was no second half. Zimmerman ran his hands over his cheeks in disappointment after the final whistle.
The past is now the past. USMNT has finally been resurrected. The eight-year wait for their return to the World Cup came to an end. But the future—the near future and the long term—is uncertain.
USMNT hot start failed
The road here from Trinidad, the site of American football’s biggest flop, has been difficult and bumpy. It all started with an aimless year-plus under interim manager Dave Sarachan. Sarachan introduced many young players to the national team, some of them became stars. But in those days, as Tyler Adams said, “We had no identity, no game plan. It was almost like you went to the national team camp for fun.”
The protracted search for a coach stopped at Gregg Berhalter. He came up with grand plans for progressive football based on possession, or as he put it, “disorganizing the opposition with the ball.” And early on, he faced the same problem that doomed the 2018 World Cup cycle: he didn’t have the right players.
Slowly but surely, however, they began to seep in. They came from the controversial US Soccer development academy, which in 2007 redefined the path of youth development. Led by Christian Pulisic, they increasingly passed through the top European clubs. Some, including Yunus Musah and Serginho Dest, also held dual citizenship, recruited by Berhalter, who preferred the US over the more legendary football nations.
As the veterans of past World Cups faded away, the youth united into a trophy-winning team. They beat Mexico in the final in a row. They stumbled in qualifying, but by some measures they were the youngest USMNT ever and the youngest national team in the entire world.
Their youth has sparked talk of a golden generation, of sky-high potential that will one day be realized. That day, conventional wisdom predicted, could come in 2026, when the World Cup is held on home soil, and when this group of young people in their 20s are in their prime. They play at a level that American football has never reached and, in some cases, with talent that American football has never seen before.
There was a feeling that they might have been too green, a bit unfinished, not quite ready to launch in 2022 yet. After 45 minutes they asked: Why not?
And in the second half, perhaps, they gave the answer. They could not withstand the pressure of the Welsh. Failed to maintain their understanding of the game. And they could not fully restore it as soon as they lost it.