Christian Pulisic’s heroics can’t save U.S. from disappointing World Cup start
The enduring image of the national team’s failure to qualify for the last World Cup was of Christian Pulisic, his uniform stained with grass and dirt, squatting in the middle of the field with his head in his hand in frustration. As a result, getting the U.S. to Qatar this fall probably meant more to Pulisic than any other player.
“He’s one of the people that really felt the heartbreak back in 2017,” goalkeeper Matt Turner said.
In a World Cup debut Monday that was delayed four years, Pulisic put in a heroic effort only to be frustrated yet again when a late penalty-kick goal allowed Wales to steal two points with a 1-1 draw.
“A little disappointed with how the game played out,” said defender Walker Zimmerman, whose foul in the box led to Gareth Bale‘s goal in the 82nd minute. “Being in a position with less than 15 minutes left to walk away with three points, it feels like we could have deserved a little bit more.”
FIFA threatened to sanction World Cup players wearing armbands in support of the LGBTQ community. Iran’s players refused to sing the national anthem.
And no one deserved a better result more than Pulisic, whose perfectly weighted pass freed Tim Weah for the lone U.S. goal in the 36th minute.
Playing against a Welsh team that was more physical than finesse, Pulisic was pummeled, punished and pounded. But he would not be put down.
He was bumped, bruised and battered. But he would not be beaten.
Tied, yes, but not beaten. That still leaves the U.S. with considerable control of its fate with group-play games against England and Iran ahead.
“I don’t know. I want to win,” Pulisic said when asked what drove him to keeping lifting himself off the well-manicured turf at Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, only to get knocked down again. “I’m very competitive. I love this team so much. I’m honored to play in a World Cup for my country.
“So the least I can do is give it everything I have.”
Pulisic might have been the one constant for the U.S. in what proved to be a game of two halves.
The Americans came out aggressively, swarming to the ball in a first half during which they held the ball for 30 of the 45 minutes, outpassed Wales nearly two to one, and took the only shot on goal, which Weah put in the back of the net. It was Pulisic who made the goal happen, taking a chested ball off a pass from Josh Sargent near midfield and making a long broken-field run before pushing a pass forward for Weah, who split two defenders at the top of the box then flicked the ball by sliding Welsh keeper Wayne Hennessey.
“Playing with Christian is amazing,” Weah said. “Over the years we’ve gained a connection. Once he gets the ball, I just have to run it behind them.
“He fights for the team. You can’t ask for anything [more]. Definitely a leader.”
The score gave Weah one more World Cup goal than his father George, who before becoming president of Liberia was a three-time African player of the year and a former world player of the year. Yet despite his achievements, he never played in a World Cup.
The U.S. could get no more despite its early domination. Some opening-night jitters and fatigue among the young Americans combined with a couple of halftime adjustments by Wales allowed the Welsh to dominate the second half. Bale eventually pulled his team even when his left-footed blast from the penalty spot got by Turner, who guessed correctly by diving to his right, but couldn’t get enough of his gloved hands on the shot to stop it.
Turner was nearly burned by Bale again deep in stoppage time. After the keeper sprinted well off his line to break up a counterattack, Bale ran to the loose ball just inside the U.S. half and began lining up a shot at the distant but open net before Kellyn Acosta grabbed his LAFC teammate around the shoulders to prevent the shot.
“A professional foul,” Zimmerman said of Acosta’s quick thinking, which earned him a yellow card.
“We talked about it before the game — every play matters,” said U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter, the only American to play and manage the U.S. in a World Cup. “Every single play can have an outcome on the game.”
What matters now is how the U.S. responds to a draw that felt a little like a loss.
“It’s disappointing for sure after such a good start,” Pulisic said. “A point in the first game, it’s better than none. We have to move on, learn from this. It’s our first World Cup game. Now it’s just time to focus on the next one.”
Added Turner of the challenge ahead: “If it was easy, everyone would do it. For us, it’s focusing on the fact that it was a good start. You take a point and you keep moving forward.”