After eight long years, the U.S. men’s national team returns to the World Cup, ready to compete in Qatar for the sport’s biggest prize. Entering the very competitive Group B, there will be little room for error in the three games. The first opponent is Wales, who have become quite experienced and dangerous in recent tournaments. The opening ceremony is scheduled for Al Rayyan’s Ahmad bin Ali Stadium, a 44,740-seat venue that was recently renovated.
This is the third all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USMNT holding a 1-0-1 advantage. Wales are currently ranked 19th in the world by FIFA and took a bit of a winding road to get to Qatar. Y Dreigiau (The Dragons) finished second in Group E behind Belgium with 15 points and a 4-1-3 record. The Round of 16 saw back-to-back thrilling wins over Austria and Ukraine, with all three goals scored by the man in all the big moments, whose name goes without saying. Recent results in the UEFA Nations League A may be cause for concern as five defeats and a draw spelled relegation and, more importantly, represent an awful run of form ahead of the final tournament.
Wales appointed Rob Page as interim manager in November 2020 and continued to lead the program during Ryan Giggs’ extended absence. After qualifying last summer, his successor eventually left and the FA rewarded his replacement with a four-year contract. The 48-year-old has limited experience with spells at Port Vale and Northampton Town, but his leadership and tactics through “uncertain, turbulent and testing times” impressed observers.
The interim manager at the time achieved what was then considered highly improbable at best, ending a 64-year wait. Wales had previously qualified for the 1958 World Cup and wandered the wilderness for decades. Recent tournament performances have been promising, including an impressive third-place finish at UEFA European Football Championship 2016. Despite the poor run of form, this is a team that shows up at the big games and must be taken with anything but light.
Page named a 26-man squad for the World Cup. English leagues and Welsh teams competing across the border contribute 21 call-ups. Three talents can be found in mainland Europe, one is in Scotland and a certain striker recently enjoyed a fantastic end to the season in Major League Soccer.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Wayne Hennessey (Nottingham Forest), Danny Ward (Leicester City), Adam Davies (Sheffield United)
DEFENDERS (9): Tom Lockyer (Luton Town), Chris Mepham (Bournemouth), Ben Davies (Tottenham Hotspur), Ethan Ampadu (Spezia), Chris Gunter (Wimbledon), Connor Roberts (Burnley), Joe Rodon (Rennes), Neco Williams (Nottingham Forest) , Ben Cabango (Swansea City)
MEDIA (9): Joe Allen (Swansea City), Aaron Ramsey (Nice), Harry Wilson (Fulham), Jonny Williams (Swindon Town), Joe Morrell (Portsmouth), Matthew Smith (Milton Keynes Dons), Dylan Levitt (Dundee United), Rubin Colwill ( Cardiff City), Sorba Thomas (Huddersfield Town)
FRONT (5): Gareth Bale (Los Angeles), Daniel James (Fulham), Kieffer Moore (Bournemouth), Brennan Johnson (Nottingham Forest), Mark Harris (Cardiff City)
Page is known as a bit of a drag, willing to incorporate various changes and wrinkles into his tactics. Wales line up in a 3-4-3 and try to “overload one side of the pitch to create space on the opposite flank”, but have also occasionally used a bold 3-5-2 without a striker. When defending, the backline picks up two extra players and clogs up the box, with the midfielders swarming the passing lanes. The dramatic irony is that defeating a team that uses a strong wide game usually requires an opponent with talented wingers, putting the full-backs on their heels and preventing them from getting forward.
Project Wales from XI (via BuildLineup.com)
Wales is in an interesting goaltending spot that the USMNT can identify with, relying on a player who fills a backup role at the club level. Wayne Hennessey has made less than ten appearances for Crystal Palace, Burnley and Nottingham Forest in the last four years and is currently a cup substitute this season. The towering 35-year-old Bangor native is tough to beat from long range and uses his 6’6″ frame to cover the goalmouth. He’s shown some rust lately and could be susceptible to possession, but the veteran will likely avoid any fan mistakes.
The coach has relied on 6’4″ Joe Rodon of Rennes as a physical match for the target forwards while using his size to “make last minute tackles”. He is also quite stable and reliable in the possession, taking advantage of the three-man backline. The group includes Tottenham’s Ben Davies, a hybrid defender who fits into the left role and can join the attack. The 29-year-old regularly sacrifices his body to derail dribbles and block shots.The manager can also look to Chris Mepham if the game calls for another traditional aerial presence.His block and clearance rates top the Premier League stats.
The right-back position is occupied by Burnley’s Connor Roberts. The 27-year-old plays an active role in advancing possession and acquits himself well in the final third, serving as an occasional source of goals. On the other side of the line-up is Swindon Town’s Jonny Williams, a 5’6” winger who has already found the back of the net six times this season. Has a tendency to drift inside to break a long-range shot or benefit as a receiver of crosses and slip passes.
While Joe Allen is working tirelessly to get back on the field, the manager can’t reasonably expect him to start after being sidelined with a hamstring injury since mid-September. This opens the door for Englishman Ethan Ampadu, a member of Chelsea’s loan army who is currently competing in Italy with Spezia. Sometimes a centre-back is an active presence in the air and on the ground, constantly chasing opponents with constant commitment. His deployment would add another body to pile up the box, a cynical tactic that pays off in international competition. The versatile Aaron Ramsey should fill the role of box-to-box, creative presence and ultimate goalscorer. The 31-year-old is now at Nice and has largely avoided health problems over the past year, now responsible for linking up with the striker positions. In the case of a 3-5-2 without a striker, Fulham’s Harry Wilson could slot in behind the forwards, breaking down opponents with dribbling and needle passing.
The pacey Daniel James patrols the wing and has the ability to outrun opponents, described as “smart in how he moves” while “using his body intelligently”. His ability to pop up in random areas is especially useful on the defensive side of the ball and can help spark counter attacks. Then, of course, there’s that other player who seems to only manage to make his mark at the biggest moments, Gareth Bale. While he’s no longer as quick as in years past, the 33-year-old can score in any way imaginable and stopping him is priority number one, two and three. He is lethal from distance, tricky on the ball and possesses the body control to claim aerial duels. As everyone inside and outside the program understands, Wales’ success in this competition rests squarely on their shoulders, a challenge to which the talisman routinely rises to world-class success.
If Page decides to play a forward, the front line will be led by 6’5” Kieffer Moore. The Bournemouth striker has scored three goals in the Premier League this season, including a brace in the 3-2 defeat at Tottenham. As well as his obvious physical presence behind the defender and his aerial ability, he is surprisingly floaty and has a great understanding of spacing. While he’s not a press machine, his defensive work is valuable, not to mention his potential utility if the opposition decides to pack the box.
With each confederation improving and best practice spreading, there is rarely an easy game at the World Cup. While starting with a loss isn’t necessarily a death knell for playoff hopes, teams rarely seem to overcome an early loss, whether due to statistical realities or slumped mentalities. The USMNT will have to get off on the right foot against an opponent that thrives on the big stage, led by a player who seems to save his prodigious talent for the biggest moments.
The game is scheduled for Monday, November 21 at 2:00 PM Eastern and 11:00 AM Pacific. Viewing options include FOX, Telemundo, the FOX Sports app and FUBO TV (free trial).
Source: 2022 World Cup: Scouting Wales