The U.S. men’s soccer team played England to a scoreless tie at the World Cup on Friday, and the most remarkable thing about it was how easily it could have been an even better result for the Americans.
Led by Tyler Adams and Christian Pulisic, the Americans out-shot England by a 10-8 margin at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar. For long stretches of the game, they were so clearly the better team that even the millions of soccer novices who watched after their Black Friday shopping could have understood which team should be winning.
But they did not win, which means a victory in Tuesday’s group stage finale against Iran (2 p.m. ET) is required to advance.
U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter made three big gambles with his starting lineup: putting in Haji Wright over Josh Sargent at striker, and leaving in Weston McKennie in midfield and Sergiño Dest at right back.
For some stretches, Berhalter’s usual 4-3-3 setup played more as a 4-4-2, with Tim Weah pushing up alongside Wright and McKennie moving to the right side.
The Americans’ best chance came in the 26th minute, when a string of good passes ended with McKennie blasting a shot into the stands.
In the 32nd, Pulisic made something out of nothing with a blast off the crossbar while facing England’s Kieran Trippier.
England didn’t put a serious shot on goal until first-half stoppage time, when a quick buildup got the ball to Mason Mount and he forced a low diving save from Matt Turner.
As the second half began, Brenden Aaronson and Gio Reyna waited on the U.S. bench — the latter for his World Cup debut after controversially being held out of the Wales game. Berhalter said heading into this one that Reyna was good to go, which only increased the anticipation to see him.
So did another McKennie blast into the stands, this one from just outside the 18-yard box in the 49th minute.
That said, the U.S. out-played England for the first 20 minutes of the second half. The Americans were patient, accurate in passing and tackling, and unafraid to press high up the field, earning a slew of corner kicks.
Alas, none produced a goal.
Neither team made a substitution until the 68th minute, when England made two: Jack Grealish replaced Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson replaced Jude Bellingham.
Berhalter left his starting group intact for a further eight minutes, even as Dest started to tire — and was one of four U.S. players carrying yellow cards, along with McKennie, Tim Ream and Kellyn Acosta. It didn’t help that the ball didn’t go out of bounds for a long time, but even when it did, Aaronson was the only player waiting to enter.
As Aaronson was replacing McKennie, Shaq Moore ran off the bench to sub in for Dest. And England manager Gareth Southgate made another move while he could, Marcus Rashford for Bukayo Saka.
Reyna’s time finally came in the 83rd minute, entering for Weah. Sargent subbed in for Wright at the same time.
The U.S. nearly threw away the game in second-half stoppage time, conceding a corner kick and an especially dangerous free kick that England failed to capitalize on. Harry Kane’s open header off that free kick, by Luke Shaw, shockingly flew wide left.
It’s remarkable that this game could have been even better than it was. The U.S. has rarely outplayed any opponent in its modern era of World Cup games, never mind a superpower that won its opener 6-2 over Iran.
When that superpower is England, the feat means even more, given how much English soccer culture has dominated America’s taste for the world’s game.
The result is undoubtedly beneficial in that regard. English media and fans will surely have come away from this game believing the U.S. can play at a seriously high level.
They’ll certainly be a little more conscious of their former colony’s 72-years-and-counting unbeaten streak against them in World Cup games.
But in terms of this year’s tournament, the Americans must still win Tuesday over an Iran team that beat Wales, 2-0, earlier Friday. Nothing else will suffice.
“I’d like to see goals,” Berhalter told Fox’s TV broadcast after the final whistle. “We’re proud, but our work’s not done. We have to win on Tuesday. We know five points gets us in — we have to focus on the five points.”
And Pulisic said: “We’ve got to come out very aggressive and win the game to move on to the next round. I’m very confident that we can do it.”
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