After eight long years, the United States Men’s National Team is back in the World Cup, ready to compete in Qatar for the biggest prize in the sport. Drawn into the highly-competitive Group B, there will be little margin for error across all three matches. The first opponent is Wales, which has become quite experienced and dangerous in recent tournaments. The opening fixture is set for the Ahmad bin Ali Stadium in Al Rayyan, a 44,740-seat venue that recently underwent a renovation.
This is the third all-time meeting between the two nations, with the USMNT holding a 1-0-1 advantage. Wales is currently ranked at 19th in the world by FIFA and took a bit of a winding road to reach Qatar. Y Dreigiau (The Dragons) finished in second place in Group E behind Belgium with 15 points and a 4-1-3 record. The knockout rounds featured successive thrilling victories over Austria and Ukraine, with all three goals scored by the man for all big moments, whose name needs no mention. Recent results in the UEFA Nations League A could be cause for concern, as five losses and one draw sealed relegation and, more importantly, represent awful form ahead of the final tournament.
Wales appointed Rob Page as an interim manager in November of 2020, and he continued to run the program during Ryan Giggs’ extended leave of absence. Following last summer’s qualification, his successor finally departed and the FA rewarded his replacement with a four-year contract. The 48-year-old has limited experience with stints at Port Vale and Northampton Town, but his leadership and tactics through “uncertain, turbulent, and testing times” impressed observers.
The then-temporary manager accomplished what was then considered at best highly improbable, ending a 64-year wait. Wales had previously qualified for the 1958 World Cup and wandered the wilderness for decades. Recent tournament performances showed promise, including an impressive third-place finish at the 2016 UEFA European Football Championship. Despite the dismal run of form, this is a team that shows up for big matches and should be taken anything but lightly.
Page named a 26-player roster for the World Cup. English leagues and the Welsh teams competing across the border contribute 21 call-ups. Three talents can be found in continental Europe, one is in Scotland, and a certain attacker 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)
MIDFIELDERS (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)
FORWARDS (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 tinkerer, willing to incorporate various shifts and wrinkles into his tactics. Wales lines up in a 3-4-3 and attempts to “overload one side of the pitch to create space on the opposite flank,” but there has also been the occasional usage of a daring striker-free 3-5-2. When defending, the back line picks up two extra players and clogs the box, with the midfielders swarming passing lanes. The dramatic irony is that defeating a team utilizing strong wide play typically requires an opponent with talented wingers, putting the wingbacks on the backheel and preventing them from advancing forward.
Wales is in an interesting spot at goalkeeper with which the USMNT can identify, relying upon a player who is occupying a reserve role at the club level. Wayne Hennessey has made fewer than ten appearances for Crystal Palace, Burnley, and Nottingham Forest the past four years and is currently the cup stand-in this season. The towering 35-year-old Bangor native is difficult to beat from long range and uses his 6’6” frame to cover the goalmouth. He has shown a bit of rust lately and could be susceptible in possession, but the veteran will likely avoid any amateurish errors.
The manager has leaned on 6’4” Joe Rodon of Rennes as a physical match for target strikers while using his size to “make goal-saving last-ditch tackles.” He is also fairly stable and reliable in possession, taking advantage of the three-player back line. 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 dribblers and block shots. The manager may also look to Chris Mepham if the match demands another traditional aerial presence. His rates of blocks and clearances are at the top of the Premier League statistical charts.
The right wingback position is occupied by Connor Roberts of Burnley. The 27-year-old takes an active role in pushing possession forward and acquits himself well in the final third, serving as an occasional source of goal scoring. On the other side of the formation is Swindon Town’s Jonny Williams, a 5’6” winger who has already found the back of the net six times this season. He has a tendency to drift inside to crack a long-distance shot or benefit as a recipient of crosses and slip passes.
While Joe Allen is tirelessly working to return to the field, the manager cannot reasonably expect him to start after being out with a hamstring injury since mid-September. This opens the door for English-born Ethan Ampadu, a member of the Chelsea loan army currently competing in Italy with Spezia. Sometimes a center back, he is an active presence in the air and on the ground, constantly harrying opponents with constant engagement. His deployment would add another body to crowd the box, a cynical tactic that bears fruit in international competition. The versatile Aaron Ramsey should fill the role of a box-to-box, creative presence, and late-breaking goal-scorer. The 31-year-old is now with Nice and has mostly avoided health issues over the past year, now responsible for linking up with the attacker positions. In the event of a striker-less 3-5-2, Fulham’s Harry Wilson could slot in behind the strikers, breaking down opponents with driving dribbling and needle-threading passes.
The pacey Daniel James patrols the wing and has the ability to blow past opponents, described as being “intelligent in how he moves” while “using his body cleverly.” His ability to pop up in random areas is particularly useful on the defensive side of the ball and can help to spring counter-attacks. Then, of course, there’s that other player who seemingly manages to only make himself known at the biggest moments, Gareth Bale. While no longer as fast as in years past, the 33-year-old can score any which way imaginable and stopping him is priority numbers one, two, and three. He is lethal from distance, tricky with the ball, and in possession of the body control to claim aerial duels. As understood by everyone inside and outside of the program, the success of Wales in this competition falls directly on his shoulders, a challenge to which the talisman routinely rises and meets with world-class success.
If Page chooses to play with a striker, the front line will be led by 6’5” Kieffer Moore. The Bournemouth attacker has scored three goals this season in the Premier League, including a brace in a 3-2 loss to Tottenham. In addition to his obvious back-to-the-defender physical presence and aerial ability, he is surprisingly fleet of foot and has a keen understanding of spacing. While not a pressing machine, his defensive work is valuable, to say nothing of his potential usefulness if the opponent elects to pack the box.
With every confederation improving and best practices becoming widespread, there is rarely an easy match at the World Cup. While starting off with a loss is not necessarily a death knell for knockout round hopes, teams seem to rarely overcome an early defeat, whether due to statistical realities or slumping mindsets. 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 most important moments.
The match is scheduled for Monday, November 21st at 2:00 p.m. Eastern, 11:00 a.m. Pacific. Viewing options include FOX, Telemundo, the FOX Sports App, and FUBO TV (free trial).