The good news: The United States both played and scored in a World Cup match for the first time in 3,065 days. In itself, that is cause for celebration. They played really, really well for 45 minutes, too.
The bad news: Matches are 90 minutes long. Wales made excellent strategic adjustments (and a key substitution) at half-time that the US struggled to account for. Manager Gregg Berhalter used only one substitute before the 74th minute and per Expected Goals (xG), Wales ended up creating four of the best six shots in the match despite the Americans’ first-half domination. The US almost survived with their lead intact, but Walker Zimmerman‘s awkward foul on Gareth Bale set up a penalty that Bale drilled into the net. A long-term 1-0 lead for the US turned into a 1-1 draw that could have easily been worse.
More bad news, perhaps: England looked spectacular earlier in the day, walloping what has historically been a defense-centric Iran team by an eye-popping 6-2 margin. While securing a draw in your opening match doesn’t feel like the worst outcome in the world, the US is an even bigger underdog against England on Friday than before and is likely to have one point heading into its final match.
FiveThirtyEight’s Soccer Power Index gave the US a 53% chance of advancing to the knockout rounds heading into the tournament, and one day in that has slipped to 45%. It could have been worse, but it needed to be better.
Let’s dive into the stats from Group B’s first two matches and what they might say about Friday’s USA-England match as well as the remainder of the group stage.
The US absolutely dominated the first half (and got little from it)
By any semi-common measure in today’s advanced stat arsenal, the US manhandled Wales in the first half. They controlled 66% of the possession. They made a combined 98 progressive carries and progressive passes to Wales’ 24. They had 103 touches in the attacking third to Wales’ 20. Wales got close enough to attempt just two shots; one was from 30 meters out, and both badly missed the target.
This was Gregg Berhalter’s dream. The US was controlling the action and hogging the ball. As has been increasingly customary, however, they were also doing very little with the ball.
The typical ratio of touches in the attacking third to touches in the box is about 6.9-to-1; about 14.5% of the former are also the latter. While it’s obviously great to have the ball on your opponent’s side of the field, it only means so much if you never do anything dangerous with it. Of the Americans’ 103 touches in the attacking third, only nine were in the box (8.8%). Only two of those came from starting center-forward Josh Sargent, and none after the 28th minute.
The US attempted only three shots while doing all of this dominating — one was a header from Sargent that he couldn’t convert from a tough angle, one was a why-the-hell-not bomb from fullback Sergino Dest (30 meters out with an xG of 0.02) and one, of course, was Timothy Weah‘s gorgeous 36th-minute goal off of a lovely feed from Christian Pulisic.
THE @USMNT TAKES THE LEAD 🇺🇸🇺🇸🇺🇸
TIM WEAH PUTS USA ON TOP pic.twitter.com/vinlFUxWGZ
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 21, 2022
They scored! It was better than nothing! But after Weah’s goal, the US wouldn’t attempt another shot for 39 minutes.
Aimless possession is not a new problem for the United States. In 14 World Cup qualification matches, they attempted 12 or fewer shots in six of them, and they combined 12 or fewer shots with over 60% possession three times. In their seven losses and draws, they averaged 10.7 shots from 57% possession. Oh, and in their two September friendlies, against World Cup teams Japan and Saudi Arabia, they managed just 11 shots combined (two on goal) with at least 55% possession in both matches.
It was probably too much to ask that this weakness suddenly get magically fixed without any major practice time or alterations to the player pool. But for as well as the US played in the first half — and holy smokes, was the midfield particularly dominant — it doesn’t really mean much if you aren’t getting anything out of it.
Kasey Keller says that with so many players lacking game action in recent months, fitness could be an issue for the United States for the rest of the World Cup.
Berhalter got outmaneuvered
Sometimes the best tactics don’t have to be the most creative ones. With Wales surprised and frustrated by the way the US was choosing to press, manager Rob Page went with a rather old-school idea: sub in a big guy up front so you can play the ball over the press.
AFC’s Bournemouth 6-foot-5 striker Kieffer Moore fit the bill. The 30-year old, who has spent much of his career in the English lower levels but has scored four times in 15 Premier League matches this season, gave Welsh defenders and midfielders a big target to whom they could either lob a long ball or send a ball in open spaces. He pulled the American backline all over the place and suddenly, Wales was possessing the ball a lot more in the attacking side of the pitch.
After mostly receiving passes early in the second half, Moore started doing some creating as well. His flicking header off of a corner nearly tied the match in the 65th minute, and he completed four of Wales’ 17 progressive passes in the second half as well.
By the 55th minute or so, the field had tilted well in Wales’ direction. Even when the US got the ball, their players were positioned so deeply that attempts at counter-attacks were often solo affairs that ended before they began. One substitution had completely changed the complexion of the match.
Meanwhile, though the US came into the World Cup worried about the fitness levels of a number of key players returning from injury — and both Weston McKennie and Pulisic were seen limping at times — Berhalter didn’t make his first substitution until the 66th minute (Brenden Aaronson for McKennie.) He didn’t make another sub until the 74th minute, and he didn’t use his fifth and final sub until the game’s final stages; Jordan Morris was on the pitch long enough to attempt a single pass. But hey, congratulations to him: he’s played in a World Cup now. Gio Reyna and Jesus Ferreira, meanwhile, have not.
From a possession standpoint, Wales didn’t dominate the second half to the same degree that the US controlled the first.
Touches in the attacking third, second half: USA 79, Wales 76
Touches in the box, second half: Wales 16, USA 12
Still, even as new attackers entered the match, the US attempted only three shots worth 0.13 xG. Wales attempted five worth 1.38. Take out Gareth Bale’s penalty — his only shot attempt of the match and one of only 35 touches — and Wales still attempted four shots worth 0.59 xG.
One team actually turned its dangerous possessions into opportunities, and it wasn’t the United States.
Other key stats from USA-Wales
#USMNT 1, WALES 1
A tale of two halves, aimless possession, bad corners, unsuccessful crosses (and corners), a transition game that dried up (after a gorgeous goal), a killer substitute and a team with an empty tank that didn’t use its subs enough. pic.twitter.com/ZkNDDomimU
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 22, 2022
The US attempted 30 crosses to Wales’ 14, but Wales actually completed more of theirs — five of 14 (36%) vs. four of 30 (13%.)
In what I call transition possessions — possessions that start outside of the attacking third and last 20 or fewer seconds — the US scored its lone goal and created 0.41 xG. Wales created just 0.09 xG with no goals. Unfortunately, the well mostly dried up at half-time: Of the US’s 15 transition possessions that ended in the attacking third, 11 came in the first half. (So did the goal, obviously.)
While Wales created four shot attempts worth a combined 0.65 xG from set pieces, the US created just one worth 0.07. Five Pulisic corners created very little danger. This was another unfortunate continuation: In World Cup qualifying, they averaged just 2.3 shots per match from set pieces and scored just three times, all in the same match (February’s 3-0 win over Honduras.)
England and Iran played a match neither of its managers prefers
Dominate the ball, get your goal, then park the bus. It was the English way — the Gareth Southgate way, in particular — during their run to the final of Euro 2020. When tied, they averaged 54% possession, 6.8 passes per possession and 0.13 shots per possession; when ahead: 45% possession, 5.6 passes per possession, 0.06 shots per possession.
Against Iran on Monday, however, they went up later in the first half and just kept right on dominating. For the 35 minutes or so that this game was tied, it was one-way traffic: 82% possession for England and 0.26 shots per possession to Iran’s 0.00. Iran’s starting goalkeeper, Alireza Beiranvand, had to leave due to a nasty-looking injury after 20 minutes, but Iran was still mostly limiting good looks, as is their custom — opponents averaged only 0.08 shots per possession and scored just five goals in 14 matches. But when Jude Bellingham scored on a beautiful header at the 34:10 mark, the floodgates opened.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) November 21, 2022
England was up 3-0 by half-time, and against a team that is particularly dependent on game state, this one was long over.
To Iran’s credit, they opened things up late in the match and looked pretty dangerous doing so. Porto striker Mehdi Taremi attempted three high-quality shots (including a penalty) and scored twice after the 64th minute, and Bayer Leverkusen‘s Sardar Azmoun knocked a breakaway shot off the crossbar in the eighth minute of stoppage time. England substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish matched Taremi’s late goals when the match was well beyond doubt, but the openness of the second half was something we don’t tend to see from either a Southgate team or a Carlos Queiroz team. (The former Real Madrid manager began his second stint with Iran in September.)
All told, the teams combined for 21 shots worth 3.86 xG; they put 10 of those shots on target and eight of those in the net. It was an otherworldly run of finishing for England — unsustainably so, in fact. Based on the xG figures for their shot attempts, there was only a 0.4% chance they would score six goals from those shots. Still, they dominated the match before things opened up, they were ridiculously crisp in attack, and the scoring margin allowed Southgate to get some key players — Harry Maguire (subbed off after 70 minutes), Bukayo Saka (71), Mason Mount (71), Raheem Sterling (71) and Harry Kane (76) — a bit of early-tournament rest.
England plays a different sport than Wales
ENGLAND 6, IRAN 2
The finishing was unsustainably good, Azmoun made a HUGE difference in Iran’s attack, and game state matters a TON to Iran. A second match might turn out different…
…buuuuut England’s really good and will slowly suffocate you if you let them. pic.twitter.com/lKb6MzfABm
— Bill Connelly (@ESPN_BillC) November 22, 2022
The good news, as it were, about the US playing England next is that the Americans’ problems with packed-in defenses doesn’t really apply. While Southgate certainly reserves the right to park the bus at times, they are excellent at cornering outmanned opponents into tight spaces.
Perhaps the most incredible statistics from England’s win on Monday had nothing to do with shots or goals: England attempted 797 passes and 753 carries. In the past 2½ seasons in the Premier League, only one team has managed both 750 passes and 750 carries in the same match: Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, of course, in a 4-3 win over Newcastle late in 2020-21.
The ball dominance on Monday was staggering. John Stones — of Manchester City, naturally — attempted 226 combined passes (117) and carries (109), while Luke Shaw attempted 203, Bellingham 175, Declan Rice 183, Kieran Trippier 162 and Maguire 136. They dribbled forward until Iran contested the ball, then they found a safe passing option. Rinse, repeat. The Three Lions turned into Guardiola’s City, and any hope the US has of pulling an upset starts with disruption. While the members of the English defense are well-drilled against the press, speedy, high-motor Americans like Ferreira and Aaronson might be needed just to break their rhythm whenever possible. It might not work, but playing passively definitely won’t.
A look ahead to Iran: game state will mean everything
If the US indeed loses to England on Friday, there are basically three possible ways the Group B table will look heading into the third matchday.
If Wales beats Iran: England 6 points, Wales 4, US 1, Iran 0
If Wales and Iran draw: England 6, Wales 2, US 1, Iran 1
If Iran beats Wales: England 6, Iran 3, Wales 1, US 1
Two of these three scenarios will require a US win over Iran (and potentially an England win over Wales) to advance, while the middle scenario would require either a win or a draw with favorable goal differentials elsewhere.
Because the US dropped the ball against Wales, then, they will almost certainly have to beat Iran. And as I wrote last week, Iran seems like a more talented version of the frustrating CONCACAF stereotype (packed-in defenses, nothing easy, minimal attacking) that gave the US fits during qualification. And if they pulled anything from the late stages of their loss to England, Iran might be a bit more confident in attack moving forward, too.
After all the stress and drama of the turmoil back home, Iran found their legs and played themselves into the England match a bit late. If they turn that into positive momentum, they could be an awfully tough out. And they could be the last team the US plays in the 2022 World Cup.