After Wales tied the match.
Photo: Michael Steele/Getty Images

After years of being an also-ran on the world stage, after missing the World Cup altogether four years ago, it is a sign of progress for the U.S. Men’s National Team that a draw against a “top 20 in the world” opponent now feels like a loss.

In the bigger picture of this particular World Cup, the USMNT’s 1-1 draw with Wales on Monday afternoon is not a completely painful outcome. They’ll play England on Black Friday, and even if they’re just able to make it close (a mere draw in that match would be a massive victory), they may be well-positioned to make it out of the group stage, with Iran as their third opponent. But it’s undeniable that Monday afternoon was an incredible opportunity squandered. A win, which had looked very much in hand for most of the afternoon, would have essentially secured a spot in the Round of 16. Now the U.S. will have to scrap for it.

The irony of the match was that Wales — an older, less talented, more strategic team, not unlike what the USMNT has been for most of its World Cup history — got their tie by pulling an old American stunt. The U.S. men were better for most of the game, particularly the first half, when their younger (they’re the youngest team in the World Cup) squad outhustled and outpaced their aging counterparts, culminating in a glorious goal by son of the president of Liberia Timothy Weah off a reality-bending pass from Christian Pulisic.

But then Wales did the U.S. thing: They hung around just long enough to produce one tiny mistake from their opponent and strike. The Gareth Bale penalty kick that tied the match was a direct result of a superior USMNT relaxing for just a moment … at the exact wrong moment. Wales pulled the underdog move. Which is supposed to be our thing.

So this is a different sort of disappointment for the Americans. It should feel like — and, really, is — an example of how far the U.S. men’s team has come; they’re getting victimized the way they’ve tried to victimize superior opponents in the past. But that will be cold comfort if they don’t end up making it out of the group stage. Monday was a learning exercise in how not to hold onto a lead. But learning exercises don’t mean anything if you can’t advance in a tournament that only happens every four years. England awaits on Friday. You’d like that game not to mean so much. But unfortunately, it does.


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