AL KHOR, Qatar — Christian Pulisic came within inches of giving the U.S. perhaps the biggest victory in its soccer history, as the Americans settled for a morale-boosting 0-0 World Cup tie with England on Friday.
Pulisic, who was named player of the match, smashed a first-half effort against the woodwork, as the U.S. dominated for long stretches at Al Bayt Stadium. The team’s situation is now crystal clear going into the final round of Group B action: Beat Iran on Tuesday (2 p.m. ET on FOX and the FOX Sports App) and move through to the round of 16; fail to do so and elimination is assured.
USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter’s young squad will rightly take significant confidence from Friday’s effort, a forceful, decisive and somewhat unfortunate performance against the fifth-ranked team in the world and one of the leading World Cup favorites.
This display mattered — both for what it was and what it represents. To show up like this against England — the founding nation of modern soccer — and to do it with such an inexperienced group untested on this stage? To do it at a time when American soccer has already reached a position of stability? Vastly encouraging.
Yes, a victory would have seismic, the kind of thing that no one who saw it would have ever forgotten. But World Cup campaigns aren’t supposed to be easy. Just know this: If you had offered Berhalter the chance to seal progress to the knockout stage by beating Iran before the tournament, he’d have snapped it up gleefully.
Before then, it is worth reflecting on the good bits, and there were plenty of them here.
Like Yunus Musah, 19, outdueling Jude Bellingham, one of the world’s best midfielders. Tyler Adams, finding his voice and verve as captain. Walker Zimmerman, the only Major League Soccer player in the starting lineup, unshaken by his penalty giveaway against Wales to cope, alongside Tim Ream, with the ever-present threat of England’s Harry Kane.
Now comes more work. Win or bust, do-or-die, all the marbles there for the taking. Coming-of-age performances are nice. Standing toe-to-toe with one of the best is great. But such things need to be followed up, clinically and ruthlessly.
Berhalter made only one change from the first game against Wales, introducing Haji Wright at striker in place of Josh Sargent.
England coach Gareth Southgate made no changes to a lineup filled with confidence after his team’s resounding 6-2 victory over Iran, one that gave it an advantage at the top of Group B.
There were some early nerves perhaps for goalie Matt Turner, who sliced a clearance after receiving a back-pass from Zimmerman, and England lived up to its reputation in the initial moments.
In the 10th minute, it was Bellingham’s run that allowed Bukayo Saka to cross for Kane and the England captain — who reportedly went for a scan on an injured ankle after the Iran game — struck goalward, only for Zimmerman to block the effort with a fine lunge.
The first proper chance for the USA came in the 16th minute. Weston McKennie’s neat cross from the right was met by the head of Wright, but the incoming forward, who played his way onto the squad with nine goals in 12 games for Antalyaspor in Turkey, could only guide it wide of Jordan Pickford’s goal.
The Americans played well in the contest. Bellingham was not enjoying Musah’s company, and when another chance arose in the 26th minute, it was fully deserved. Some clever buildup saw Tim Weah whip in a firm cross, but while McKennie met it first, this time he could only steer it well over the bar.
Just after the half-hour came the highlight-reel moment. Pulisic got the ball in the area and shifted to his left, rifling off a clean drive. But it was not to be, with his effort careening off the bar.
England was holding on, but remained dangerous. Just before the interval, Mason Mount shot low and hard, and Turner did well to push it away with his fingertips.
Overall, it was an empowering night for American soccer. USA fans chanted, “It’s called soccer!,” a fun twist on the soccer vs. football debate. And when they yelled, “I believe that we will win!,” they meant it.
After the break, there was little falloff. McKennie had another chance that went awry, and the Americans won five corners in swift succession, all to no avail.
They continued to press — and why not, with a draw not providing much more qualification help than a loss.
Perhaps inevitably, England got things under better control. Southgate was starting to figure things out, and his bench, with stars such as Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford, was loaded.
However, a central backline that some might have considered shaky — Ream was out of the national squad for a year and Zimmerman had his tough moment against Wales — was steady and composed. Until, right at the end, Kane got the sort of chance he usually accepts, a free header from Luke Shaw’s free-kick, but missed wide.
And so the status quo held, between two teams that might not always be equally matched, but certainly were on this night.
There is everything to play for now.
The U.S. has earned its opportunity. Destiny beckons.
After a tie that felt like a loss came a tie that felt like a win.
A moral victory is in the books — now, the U.S. needs a real one.