Now It's Win or Go Home
In my opening World Cup essay, I tried to make it pretty clear that I’m the most casual of soccer fans. I watch soccer the way I listen to music, which is to say purely for pleasure and without any deep understanding of how it actually works.
So, it should follow that I’m simply not a sophisticated enough fan to appreciate a nil-nil draw.
There have been A LOT of nil-nils at this World Cup. Like … a lot. I believe the record for scoreless draws at a World Cup is seven, and there have already been five at this World Cup, and we’re not even halfway through the group stage.
And Friday, the fifth, the United States 0, England 0. It was the first goalless draw in the U.S. World Cup history — an American scorigami in the words of pal Michael Schur.
It was the THIRTEENTH scoreless draw in England World Cup history, if you count the 2006 penalty kicks loss to Portugal in the 2006 Round of 16.
As it goes, I’m simply not savvy enough, experienced enough or, frankly, European enough to recognize or comprehend the beauty of a goalless draw. I get a pitcher’s duel because I grew up with baseball. But nil-nil leaves me cold. Sure, I understand, on an intellectual level, that the scoreless draw against England was a good result for a very young United States team still figuring out what it can become.
But it left me feeling pretty barren anyway.
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The U.S. outplayed England. That was something to see. For the first 10 or 15 minutes, the game was going exactly how we’d been told it would go. The young U.S. players looked nervous, England controlled the ball and pressed forward, this looked like just another American World Cup affair, another game where they would have to withstand a whirlwind barrage from a superior team and hope to cash in on one counterattack, one lucky punch.
But after the U.S. team settled in, the game actually went in the opposite direction. It was the United States that dominated possession, that moved forward, that created chances. I’m too lazy to look it up, but I believe the U.S. had 4,483 corners in this game. It was something like that. That ball always seemed to be somewhere deep in England territory. American star Christian Pulisic hit the crossbar with a shot. All those corners. It was startling.
I can’t remember who wrote it, but I remember reading a sportswriter’s memories of the first Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston fight. You might know that coming into that fight, there was sincere concern among many that Liston would literally kill Ali in the ring. Liston was this monster of a man, an ex con, mixed up with the mob, bigger than buildings, badder than old King Kong, meaner than a junkyard dog. And Ali was this smart aleck kid who fought running backward and talked way too much.
The sportswriter just knew that Ali was going to get demolished. Everybody did. Liston was a 7-to-1 favorite.
Only then, the sportswriter remembered, the two men stepped into the ring and he realized for the first time something that should have been apparent all along: Ali was BIGGER than Liston. Like, quite a lot bigger. And as the fight went on, it became increasingly clear: Ali was not just bigger than Liston, he was also stronger than Liston and way faster than Liston and could take a punch better than Liston. In the end, Liston wouldn’t come out for the seventh round.
And that was a little bit of what Friday’s match looked like. All the experts say England is one of the great teams in the world, a real contender in Qatar, and the United States is an inexperienced team without anything close to the same level of talent. But for the better part of 90 minutes, the United States was the better team. The United States looked faster, looked stronger, looked fitter and looked better organized. At least that’s how it seemed to me.
In fact, as former big-league pitcher and minority owner of Phoenix Rising FC Brandon McCarthy* explained to me, there were two or three moments when the referee should have given out a yellow to one of those England midfielders, and that might have made a massive difference.
“That’s three huge yellows so far because it’s their midfield,” he texted. “Somehow, we’re dominating the midfield even while we’re not at a numerical advantage in there. If they’re on yellow, and they can no longer tactically foul us, it’s a huge advantage.”
I did follow most of that.
*Brandon, weirdly, is my soccer guru, I suppose I should be texting with Alexi Lalas or Landon Donovan about this baseball offseason.
Anyway, the U.S. did outplay England … but the result was nil-nil all the same, and this comes down to the thing that I’ve been thinking about ever since my earliest days as a casual soccer fan: When will the United States develop a world class attacker? I mean, Pulisic is very good, don’t misunderstand, but he’s not MAGICAL the way, say, Robert Lewandowski or Mohamed Salah or Kylian Mbappé or Erlin Haaland or a few dozen others are magical (obviously Messi and Ronaldo, but they’re getting older).
Scoring goals don’t always require sorcery. Sometimes a team scores goals through unrelenting pressure, sometimes through a well-orchestrated set piece, sometimes because a defender makes a classic blunder. But often, yes, sorcery is required. England’s Harry Kane is such a sorcerer; to me he looked utterly defeated in this match. He was hobbled by an ankle injury, and for 90 minutes the U.S. just took him out of things, made him look both bad and helpless.
And then in stoppage time, somehow, he just materialized in front of the goal and had the best opportunity of the entire match, a header in front of the goal that he would normally put away. That’s, apparently, just what Harry Kane does.
Kane did miss this time, and that is why the match ended nil-nil. But the point is that the United States has never had a Harry Kane and still doesn’t have a Harry Kane. It feels to me that’s what holds the U.S. back. Athletically, they can match up. In speed, they match up. In pure hustle, yes, they outhustled England. As mentioned, Pulisic is a hugely talented player who did create chances.
But in pure goal-scoring wizardry? The U.S. still has not sent anyone to soccer Hogwarts.*
*Though the story might be changing — 19-year-old Ricardo Pepi might just be the United States’ Gryffindor hero. U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter decided to leave Pepe at home for this World Cup because, I don’t know, something about physicality I think. Anyway, people tell me he has displayed the goal-scorer’s genius, and as he gets stronger and more experienced, he might be the guy when the World Cup comes to North America in 2026.
Now, the story is plain: The United States has to beat Iran on Tuesday to advance to the Round of 16. A nil-nil draw (or any other draw) won’t get it done. Iran is a good team with a top-notch goal scorer named Mehdi Taremi, and Iran did do what the U.S. could not when they beat Wales 2-0*.
*To be fair, both Iranian goals came only after Wales’ goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey got the first red card of the World Cup and Wales was forced to play with 10 men.
But the U.S. is still a pretty heavy favorite to win. You’ve got to believe they will play inspired soccer, they will get chances against an Iranian defense that allowed six goals against England. They have to put away those chances. Well, at least one of them.