England saved in postcolonial grudge match by USA’s invisible striker

<span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Observer

American TV viewers were treated to the pop-cultural equivalent of Gegenpressing in the leadup to Friday’s postcolonial grudge match between the USA and England: whenever a semblance of coherence materialised in Fox Sports’s preview of the match, it was quickly shut down. In the 10 minutes before kickoff, members of the Fox “team” asserted, variously, that “it all circles around Harry Kane” (does it?), that America is “used to being the biggest, the baddest, and the best in everything” (tell that to the tennis players of Europe or India’s cricketers), and that “you’re going to see this US team playing aggressively, stepping in the English players’ faces” (seems bookable). George Washington and the American Revolution scored a mention over footage of midfielders performing pre-match squats.

On the field, a match eventually took shape, with America’s players executing something close to Fox’s on-air strategy of confusion and harassment, only with much more pleasing results. For much of the match, the USA were consistently faster to the ball, playing with an urgency and an incision that made England look lumbering and befuddled. Despite their dominance, however, America once again paid for their lack of decisiveness in the final third – a story that has become depressingly familiar for a team that is at last threatening to make good on its immense promise.

An acute awareness of their finishing difficulties seemed to accompany the USA players on to the pitch at Al Bayt Stadium. As this oddly hysterical stalemate ticked past the hour mark, America’s on-field brains trust – Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Walker Zimmerman – gathered by the corner flag for a brief strategy meeting. England had just conceded their sixth corner of the night.

Pulisic’s set-piece delivery, so woeful in the USMNT’s World Cup opener, had been routinely excellent in this match, with only one problem: there was never anyone in the penalty area to meet the ball after it cleared the first English defender. On the fly, the USA’s key trio devised a plan for how to shackle England’s defenders and create space for an American opening in front of goal.

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Pulisic’s corner arced across the clump of English players, beyond the reach of Jordan Pickford, and toward the vacant far post. Zimmerman arrived – but around two seconds too late. The pattern of the match – in which the USA carved England’s midfield apart at will, creating chance after chance from wide areas that no American player was on hand to convert – was confirmed.

A battling, courageous effort only confirmed what many have long suspected about this vintage of the USMNT: it remains a team in search of a striker.

Midfield control, speed on the flanks, balls spraying across the box, England on the rack, and no goals: such was the story of this match for the USA. In midfield and out wide, this team boasts a cleverness that the more agricultural American outfits of years past lacked.

Much of America’s joy in this match came down the right side, with Sergiño Dest and Tim Weah providing the kind of buccaneering thrust that England so clearly missed, while on the other flank Pulisic had perhaps his best match in national colours, hitting the crossbar once and repeatedly skipping away from defenders with the graceful commitment of a New York subway rider beating the closing doors. For once all the dreary, incessant insistence of American fans that Pulisic is a generational talent that three successive Chelsea managers have miraculously conspired to shackle seemed justified.

The England defence handled the threat of Haji Wright fairly easily
The England defence handled the threat of Haji Wright fairly easily. Photograph: Luca Bruno/AP

A match of half-chances cried out for a ruthless finisher to settle the affair but if England’s misfortune was that Harry Kane spent most of the game bailing out his back four, America’s was that its own frontman was mostly invisible. Gregg Berhalter dropped Norwich City’s Josh Sargent, a largely peripheral figure in the 1-1 draw against Wales, and elevated Haji Wright to his starting lineup. But the 6ft 3in target man – a former youth international who appeared in the same under-17 side as many of this team’s most important players – struggled to impose himself on proceedings, an early header that flashed just wide of the upright representing his most telling contribution. At times Wright combined well with Dest and Weah but these interventions felt emptily decorative; it says everything about his absence in front of goal that the USA’s two best scoring opportunities fell to Pulisic and McKennie.

The lack of a reliable finisher creates a real problem for Berhalter for a must-win encounter against Iran. It also represents something of a historical anomaly: in every other World Cup played this century the USA’s biggest outfield stars were its forwards – players of the caliber of Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, now ensconced as pundits on the Fox Sport set on Doha’s waterfront. If anything those earlier teams were over-reliant on their forwards and let down by a certain stodginess in the middle of the pitch. Now the opposite dilemma holds: this USA team is loaded with skilled midfielders and creates a torrent of chances but has no one to put them away.

Berhalter may now turn to the remaining striker in his squad, but it’s doubtful that FC Dallas’s Jesús Ferreira will succeed where Sargent and Wright have not. Despite the pre-match optimism of Fox Sports’s revolutionary war historians, the USA will have to wait until Qatar holds its next World Cup before it can complete the Bunker Hill-Al Bayt double over England. Until then, America’s search for a No 9 goes on.