There was a moment during the buildup to yesterday’s Engalnd-USA World Cup match where Alexi Lalas gave a speech which was obviously meant to be similar to Michael Sheen’s rousing pre-Wales pep talks but which ended up sounding more like something a drunken uncle would say at Thanksgiving. He basically just yelled that the USA needed to play with heart and fierceness, or something. What he said wasn’t memorable, but the reaction of the other three folks in the studio was: Clint Dempsey looked like he was going to laugh, Rob Stone did laugh and former Arsenal and England international Kelly Smith just looked on in disbelief. Stone asked the panelists what they thought of Lalas’ rant (while Lalas stayed in character, his lips firmly shut, jaw tight) and Kelly Smith tried to answer but was cut off by someone behind her in the crowd yelling out “USA!”
That rant kicked off an hour long segment of coverage on Fox which was one of the more hilarious pieces of nationalism I’ve seen so far in this tournament. There was a piece on Harry Kane which directly linked his success to watching a documentary on Tom Brady. That piece of course ended with a question about whether he wants to play as a kicker in the NFL when he retires from football. There was a five minute Frito-Lay commercial “it’s called soccer” which was the highlight, not because it was well done or interesting, but because it was like a Saturday Night Live sketch in the way that it had one joke and just kept ramming it home. I tuned out most of it but it was an exhausting hour of buildup to the game.
Maybe the England team was watching the Fox pre-match buildup? It would explain why they looked so listless for most of the match.
I say that, but it’s one of those jokes which is meant to both be an exaggeration and point to the truth. The truth isn’t that the England team watched the Fox segment, but that after a really good start, they did look a bit tired. But there’s another layer here as well: I think that much of the handwringing by England fans and pundits after the match and the celebration of the USA by fans and pundits is hilariously overblown.
To be clear, I was born here in the USA but I’m not a fan of the US Men’s* National Team. And while I do love Saka, White, Ramsdale, Musah, and Matt Turner – and hold no particular animus toward most** of the other players on either team, while actively appreciating talent like Bellingham and Weah – I feel like this is a game which I can judge fairly objectively. And I think that both sides are overplaying their hand a bit.
For England, this draw is being treated almost like a loss with folks (which is my putting pundits and fans into a new group) angry that Southgate didn’t do more to attack the USA. For the USA, this draw is being treated like a win with folks saying that they were the better team and “should have won”.
From the England perspective, I get it. If the USA had Saka, Kane, Sterling, Bellingham, Grealish, Foden, and Trent Alexander-Arnold I think we would demand more than 8 shots in pretty much any game. And with that talent on the roster it’s reasonable to expect that your team would top the group and get far in the elimination stages.
But at the same time England needed just a draw to go through and are in position to win the group (unless the USA crushes Iran and Wales beat England – both possible). It’s also true that tournaments like the World Cup, FA Cup, etc. etc. reward teams which are more conservative and punish teams which are too expansive and every coach worth his corn knows this.
This World Cup is also suffering from a lack of preparation time and it’s not a surprise that there have been more 0-0 draws so far than at similar points in previous World Cups. It’s easier to organize a defense than an attack.
That said, England had the two best chances in the game. One for Saka in the 45th minute and one for Kane at the end of the match. Could they have taken more chances? Probably. Did they play to make sure they didn’t lose, absolutely.
I think that Southgate made some odd choices. That is not a question. Phil Foden, for example, seemed superglued to the England bench while Mason Mount was turning the ball over constantly up top. Mount was probably the USA’s best defender. I had to check to see if Foden was injured (he’s not). I get that Mount was better than Foden last year but Mount was having a terrible game and it was a surprise that Southgate left him on the field for the full 90 minutes. A draw was fine for England but a win would have guaranteed first place in the group.
For the USA, they did exactly what they needed to do and made the game physical rather than technical. They closed space, they played tight, and the referee allowed the game to flow rather than handing out a ton of cards. They played exactly like you’d like to see an underdog play.
I will give credit to the USA midfield. While it wasn’t quite a “dominant” performance like some would have you believe, I think that they did edge the England midfield and special mention goes to Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie for their defensive work and assured passing.
That said, USA only created one real chance ( a “dominant” midfield would create more in my opinion). That fell to Weston McKennie who spooned the ball over. And while Pulisic had his best game of the tournament so far (4 shots and 1 key pass) he was limited to just 0.14 xG and none of his chances threatened Pickford.
Folks’ reaction to this match comes down to expectations before the game. In the pre-match buildup Stone asked Smith, Dempsey, and Lalas for their predictions. Lalas continued his faux bravado proclaiming a 2-0 win for USA. Dempsey predicted a 1-1 draw. And Kelly Smith continued her pre-match hubris (which was a widely held belief on all the pods I listen to) and predicted a 2-1 win for England. It makes sense, then, that most of the England folks are disappointed and most of the USA folks are happy.
One last bit here: what I’m saying above might seem to contradict Alexi Lalas both claiming that he thought USA would win 2-0 and also after the match calling it a terrific performance. But it’s obvious that Lalas never really believed the USA would win 2-0 because if he did, he would have been deeply disappointed by a 0-0.
A draw sets up a final day where every match matters. Wales can’t get through but they can play spoiler against England and help either USA or Iran win the group. Meanwhile, USA needs a win over Iran to go through while Iran can just take a draw.
Realistically I expect England to top the group and for USA to finish 2nd. Iran has had a number of off-field problems. Their religious dictatorship is being challenged and there are riots along with police and military crackdowns. That has reached the World Cup squad as one of their players was arrested for speaking out against the government. They will have the crowd in their favor, I’m sure, but that can’t be a good place for a team to be, mentally. I expect USA to win.
*I am a fan of the USWNT!
**Kane, Dier, and Pulisic are the exceptions