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What Did We Learn From the USA-Wales Game? Everything and Nothing.

The USMNT’s opening draw against Wales confirmed the team is talented, inexperienced, and under the questionable coaching of Gregg Berhalter: in other words, everything we knew already

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

OK! Well, that’s a data point. Let’s start with the good news: The U.S. was competitive. In the 36th minute of the U.S. men’s national soccer team’s World Cup opener against Wales, Christian Pulisic, the Americans’ star midfielder, got the ball in the middle of the pitch. Pulisic, who plays for Chelsea in the English Premier League, skipped away from the Welsh defense, then knocked the ball forward to Tim Weah, a winger who plays for the Ligue 1 side Lille in France. (Weah is also, in an all-time bit of sports trivia, the son of the president of Liberia, George Weah, who is one of the greatest African soccer players of all time.) Weah charged at the Welsh goalkeeper, Wayne Hennessey, took a clinical shot with the outside of his right foot, and scored—1-0 to the United States. It was the first American goal at a men’s World Cup in more than eight years. (The USMNT failed to qualify for the 2018 tournament in Russia.)

Now for the bad news: The U.S. couldn’t hold the lead. In the first half, the Americans looked sharp and aggressive, while their Welsh counterparts looked a little overawed by the occasion. But in the second half, the teams seemed to switch identities. American legs looked heavier; Welsh eyes looked brighter by the minute. Finally, in the dying minutes of the match, the U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman fouled Welsh star Gareth Bale in the box. Bale converted the penalty shortly after. 1-1, and a disappointing final score for an American team that really—like really really—could have used a win to open a group-stage campaign that leads through the wall of rotating knives that is England.

What do we do with this game? Well, the same thing we do with every U.S. men’s soccer game: try to figure out what the hell it meant. In the days and weeks (and months, and years) before this match, the charitable interpretation of the USMNT was that we were going to have to wait until the tournament kicked off to see what they were actually capable of. I don’t know about you; I came into this match with a lot of questions.

I questioned, for example, the tactical acumen of U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no tactical genius myself. I’m not here to give you some X’s and O’s lecture about whether Brenden Aaronson should have started against Wales. (OK, fine: Maybe Brenden Aaronson should have started against Wales, or at least have come on sooner?) But you don’t have to be a carpenter to look at a broken chair and know that it’s broken. And you don’t have to be a professional soccer manager to look at the USMNT’s embarrassing 2-0 loss against Japan two months ago in a friendly and deduce that a team that can’t break a press, create chances for its forwards, or find a defensive scheme that works for its actual defenders is in bad shape.

So, OK, I thought. Forget winning a soccer match for a second. Could Berhalter successfully eat a milkshake with a spoon? Would he name the wrong spoon to the team sheet—say, a spoon too large to fit into the cup? Would he fundamentally misunderstand the spoon’s positional strengths? Would he confuse the spoon with a straw and try to suck the ice cream through it?

On the other hand, this is a pretty talented young team. The USMNT has the youngest squad in Group B by more than a year, even when you account for the presence of the ageless (that is, very old) Tim Ream in the lineup. (Ream is 35; despite his warping effect on the overall average, the lineup the U.S. fielded against Wales was its youngest in a World Cup since 1990.) With a core this inexperienced, every match offers the potential for real improvement. What’s more, Pulisic didn’t play in that loss to Japan. He did play in the equally dispiriting 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia, the team’s final tuneup before the World Cup, but hey—warm-up games are notoriously inconclusive, right? So I came into this match determined to keep an open mind and learn whatever I could from the squad’s performance.

Well, friends, it turns out that “learning” from this opening match was easier said than done. After a full 90 minutes, plus what felt like 200,000 minutes of stoppage time, I’m not sure I know much more than I did before.

Is the USMNT talented? Yes (see: the flurry of action around the Welsh goal just nine minutes into the game, featuring a very, very near miss by Norwich City’s Josh Sargent in his first USMNT start in over a year). But we knew that already.

Is the USMNT inexperienced? Yes (see: the yellow cards for Weston McKennie and Sergiño Dest in the first 15 minutes of the game). But we knew that already, too.

Can Gregg Berhalter be trusted to devise a winning game plan? The nicest possible answer is that we still don’t know—and we knew that already, too.

On the first full day of the World Cup—a day when Iranian players chose not to sing their national anthem in solidarity with the protests gripping their country; a day when FIFA successfully pressured several European team captains not to wear OneLove armbands in solidarity with the LGBTQ+ community, and in defiance of the Qatari authorities—soccer itself may not have seemed like the most important thing happening at the world’s biggest soccer tournament. But the soccer still happened — and it was at least encouraging to see the American players produce their best first half in months, I guess?

Wales, of course, is the home of former Real Madrid and Tottenham star Gareth Bale, who currently plays for LAFC (where he recently scored a mildly important 128th-minute equalizer in the MLS Cup final). On paper, Bale was the best player in this game. In actuality, he was nowhere near the best player; he just wound up scoring the most important goal.

Bale has always been such a funny soccer star. With his hollow cheeks, his bright blue eyes, and his ornately piled man bun, he looks a bit like a product of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim character builder. (Scruff setting: Medium.) And because his game seems to shift unpredictably between wildly brilliant and utterly anonymous, he sometimes strikes me as a Skyrim character in a house with a shared savegame. Who has the controller today? Sometimes it’s the greatest gamer alive, and sometimes it’s Randy, the greatest gamer’s buddy who cuts class to keep playing.

At his best, though, Bale is a world-class star. And under the emotional circumstances of the U.S. match, Wales’s first World Cup game in more than 60 years—and arguably the biggest match of Bale’s career, even though he’s played in a slew of Champions League finals—Bale was certainly hoping not to wind up with Randy.

But for much of the match, that’s exactly what happened. He got Randy. Bale looked out of sync and unthreatening for long stretches. Probably his biggest contribution in the first half was getting booked in the 40th minute for a tackle from behind on Yunus Musah. Not great! But the thing about penalties is that even Randy can convert them most of the time. Randy came through when it mattered most. And for tonight, at least, Randy—sorry, Gareth—will have his name sung in the streets of Cardiff.

And here we are! The first match is in the books. We know nothing. We can expect nothing. We should probably figure out a way to at least draw with England on Friday—which feels like a heroic task, given their 6-2 thumping of Iran—or else our third game of the group, also against Iran, will be a bone-crushing crucible of pressure for the Americans.

And I’m not sure I can handle a bone-crushing crucible of pressure at this point. Honestly, I’m not even sure I can handle a milkshake.