Premium: One World Cup Point ... And Two Points Dropped
A late Wales equalizing penalty felt like a gut punch to a U.S. team on the verge of a statement-making win.
AL RAYYAN, Qatar — In the days before the U.S.’s World Cup opener against Wales, defender Walker Zimmerman couldn’t help but think of the tantalizing opportunity that lay before his team in his country’s first appearance since 2014 at the world's biggest sporting event. The chance to make history comes ever so rarely. Eight years had passed since the last time the USMNT made the World Cup. For Wales, it was 64.
Zimmerman recognized all of that. Being on the ground at the World Cup feels like you’re at the center of the universe. Billions of people are watching the same thing at the same time. The possibilities are limitless.
“We grew up watching Miracle and Rudy and these iconic moments in these teams, and you’re thinking to yourself, This could be the next movie that they’re talking about. That’s the opportunity that we have,” Zimmerman told me in a one-on-one interview the day before the game.
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Soccer can be the cruelest sport, though, especially for a defender. You can play a solid game, but one mistake at the wrong location at the wrong time can define your performance. That’s what happened with Zimmerman on Monday. With the USMNT clinging to a 1-0 lead in the 81st minute and on the brink of just its sixth World Cup win going back to 1990, Zimmerman left his feet to make a tackle in the penalty box and fouled Wales superstar Gareth Bale.
Bale converted the spot kick, and the 1-1 tie changed the U.S. tone for the evening from one of undisputed triumph—three points would have positioned the Americans to advance from the group—to one of frustration and disappointment over a giant missed opportunity.
“Just disappointed with the nature of how the game played out,” Zimmerman said afterward. “We had a great first half, getting the first goal and then being in a position with less than probably 15 minutes left to walk away with three points. It was a big game for us. It would have been amazing to get three.”
Zimmerman credited Bale, who knows how to handle himself in the box, for a smart play to draw the penalty. “The ball gets down to the end line,” Zimmerman said, “I see it get cut back and at that point I’m dropping down and on the way to step out and clear the ball. I don’t see Bale coming across. I think it was one of those where he probably just puts his leg not for the ball but to try to get in the way of me hitting the ball. So I kind of went through him, and I think I still got the ball, but it was a clever move.”
“We talked about it before the game: Every play matters,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. “World Cup, you’ve got to be focused. Every single play can have a potential outcome on the game. It’s a high level that we’re playing. A good high intensity. And this particular play was a little bit unlucky for Walker. He had a lot of good challenges. This one, a little unlucky.”
Moments change games. A moment before the penalty, U.S. left back Antonee Robinson raised his hand to the assistant referee when he was convinced he saw the ball go over the line into touch before Brennan Johnson played it back. Robinson and Berhalter were adamant afterward that the ball was out of play, but the Wales attack was allowed to continue. (You couldn’t tell on the TV replay due to the AR blocking the camera’s view of the ball.)
Except for that one decisive play, the U.S. central defense tandem of Zimmerman and Tim Ream had been good on the night. Not perfect—Wales had two golden chances midway through the second half—but good. Ream, 35, hadn’t been called into the U.S. squad for more than a year when Berhalter tapped him for the World Cup camp. But Ream has been playing well captaining Fulham in the Premier League, and he got the start on Monday.
Ream and Zimmerman had played only one half of a competitive game together before—in a friendly against Costa Rica in Utah in June 2021—and they spent the week in Doha familiarizing themselves with each other on and off the field.
“We’ve had the chance in training and off the field to really talk a lot about each other’s game, what we expect from each other, how we like to receive the ball,” Zimmerman told me. “Even just working on how hard we want to pass it to each other when we’re switching it across the back. After training he’s like, ‘Hey, let’s hit some balls. I just want to get a feel for how we’re passing back and forth.’ It’s just the small things that you talk through that have been really good.”
Bale’s penalty canceled out a marvelous 36th-minute goal by U.S. winger Tim Weah that came at the end of an attacking sequence straight out of the American game plan. Striker Josh Sargent came to the ball, drawing out centerback Joe Rodon, and chested it onto the foot of Christian Pulisic running into the vacated space. Pulisic’s pinpoint pass to Weah was finished with total composure.
Weah’s father, George, the current president of Liberia and one of the greatest players in history never to have competed in the World Cup, celebrated with Weah’s mother, Clar, in the stands. “It’s a great feeling,” Tim Weah said afterward. “I think he’s living this moment through me, and I’m very happy to score this goal for them and happy to help the team whichever way.”
The U.S. goal was a deserved reward for dominating control of the first half, even though that possession didn’t translate into many clear scoring chances. Things changed in the second half, though, after Wales coach Rob Page brought on the towering striker Kieffer Moore for Daniel James. The U.S. began to tire and was unable to create the scoring chances to make it 2-0. The Americans ended up paying the price.
“I’m always disappointed when you don’t win,” captain Tyler Adams said. “In the first half I felt we were very calm under pressure. In the second half they changed their game plan. They adapted a little bit. But I think maybe a little bit of fatigue sets in and you lose a little bit of focus at certain moments in the game. It’s just about maximizing the focus throughout every single moment in the game and staying tuned into the details.”
“It’s disappointing,” said Pulisic. “After such a good start, we got the goal we needed, and I guess we just dropped off a bit in the second half and let them get the goal.”
Will there be questions for Berhalter after some of his decisions? No doubt. His call to start Weah on the wing ahead of Gio Reyna and Brenden Aaronson proved to be the right one given Weah’s goal. But Berhalter’s decision to bring on Jordan Morris late in the game instead of Reyna was a head-scratcher. Berhalter said Morris’s physicality fit the moment better and he had concerns that Reyna wasn’t fully fit, but Reyna said he was 100 percent and ready to go.
One of Berhalter’s biggest concerns in the weeks before the World Cup was that his young but confident players would underestimate the challenge and gravity of the World Cup in the same way he thought they had done so at the start of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying 14 months ago. In that moment, even team leaders like Adams had talked about wanting “a nine-point week” in the opening three-game qualifying window, only to struggle desperately for five points in the end.
But Berhalter said on Sunday that he was happy with what he had seen from his U.S. team in training, and to hear the players say it, they had a full realization of the significance of the moment.
As Zimmerman told me on Sunday, “I think getting guys to grasp the magnitude of it, but also being calm and staying present in the moment, it’s a fine balance that I think we’re doing a good job of.”
There are always players who become breakout stars at World Cups, and Zimmerman had long seemed like a U.S. player who could make that leap in Qatar, perhaps somewhat like fellow defender Alexi Lalas did in 1994. To break out, you need to perform well, obviously, and the 29-year-old Zimmerman has become the rock of the U.S. defense over the past year. But he also has qualities Madison Avenue likes. He’s an attractive guy who’s comfortable speaking and in a leadership role, and he has a cool “Back Line Viking” schtick.
Even though Zimmerman has played his entire career in MLS, currently with Nashville, that doesn’t mean he’s lacking in ambition.
“It doesn’t go unnoticed, the opportunity that comes with the World Cup,” he said. “For me, someone who’s been in the domestic league, I’m hearing, Why have you never gone overseas? This is a huge opportunity for me to be seen on the biggest stage and to play against the best. My M.O. my whole life is I want to challenge myself against the best. Like, I’m ready for that opportunity.”
Still, the collective is what matters most. Zimmerman knows that. For more than a year, this U.S. team has been closer, with fewer cliques, than its predecessor was under Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena when the U.S. failed to qualify for the last World Cup. That team was riven by factions, not least the divide between European-based and U.S.-based players.
This team was more united during its qualifying campaign, and Zimmerman felt that had gone to a new level in Doha. Travis Thomas, who has worked with the U.S. as a performance coach under Berhalter, organized a spinning wheel on his phone for each player when they came to dinner at the Marsa Malaz Kempinski hotel here. Players would be assigned to their dinner seats based on the wheel and stay there for two or three nights, getting to know their table mates even better. Thomas also organized World Cup trivia contests, which were often won by goalkeeper Matt Turner.
U.S. Soccer also set up a players lounge in the hotel with big television screens, a pool table, chessboards, card tables, a putting green, barbers chairs (complete with the team’s favorite longtime barbers from New York City) and plenty of places to lounge around.
“The coolest thing is almost every single player is always in the lounge,” Zimmerman told me. “We are literally together with at least 15 to 20 of the guys rather than four to six. Twenty of the guys are in that room at all times. And you’ve got pool going on, you have chess going on. Some guys watching a movie, some guys getting their haircuts by the barbers, some guys playing pingpong.”
“It’s been really fun because no one’s off in their room,” Zimmerman went on. “I think the time change helps because everyone else back home is asleep. So a lot of guys aren’t even on their phones that much. We’re just all hanging out, which I think is a really unique thing about this camp.”
As you might expect, the U.S. players raised the stakes with a bit of money riding on things, but not so much that it got out of hand. On the pool table, $10 was the usual amount, whether it was one-on-one or two-on-two. Zimmerman has taken to calling Christian Pulisic “H&M” for “house money” as the centerback keeps track of his tab list on his phone. (“It’s been fun to get under his skin a little bit,” Zimmerman cracks.)
And then there are the card games. A group of U.S. players including Morris, Cristian Roldan, Aaron Long, Robinson, Turner and Zimmerman have been playing President. It’s $4 for the president, $2 for vice, and the bottom two have to pay the four and the two.
“We’re still not quite to the hundred-dollar threshold yet, but it’s getting close,” Zimmerman explained with a laugh. “I think I’m in the plus-$80s and Jordan is down $70. It’s light money. But it’s so funny how everyone gets so pissed when it’s like $2, $4 and $10 pool games. They’re like: NO! That just shows the competitive group that we have.”
That competitive nature will be put to the test again on Friday when the U.S. meets England, which beat Iran 6-2 on Matchday 1. To feel good about controlling their own destiny in the group, the Americans will likely need at least a point against one of the favorites to win the World Cup.
“I think we have a good enough team to make it out of this group,” Pulisic said on Monday. “England is our next test, and we’re going to go in and try to be aggressive and try to win the game. That’s all we can do.”
After an opening-game tie, though, the margins are going to be razor thin.
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