U.S. came up short once again at the World Cup. Here’s why it felt different this time

For those stuck at work or school, or whose only awareness is that the World Cup is about to begin, Qatar has banned Budweiser, the end result will evoke familiar feelings.

United States 1, Wales 1.

A tie. That’s it, a 1-1 draw? Another World Cup tie led to an aging team representing a portion of the United Kingdom, roughly the population of Iowa (3.1 million) making its first World Cup appearance in 64 years?

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, let alone attention. We must be better than this. Points are left on the table. Risk of wilting in Qatar’s heat. It was so familiar that someone might start with the old tired trope that the US will never be a good team until our best athletes play soccer and not basketball or football.

So, yes, skepticism is an understandable feeling considering the USMNT has won just two World Cup games in the last two decades. Another draw and another international exit from group play isn’t going to help.

Yet if you watched the Americans on Monday, something was different, this team was different, that much was clear.

Make no mistake, this was a poor result for the Americans, a disappointing result, because they were the better team on Monday, often much better. They should have won 2-0, 3-0, a proper team, a real contender, would have won.

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USA's Christian Pulisic reacts after the 1-1 draw between the USA and Wales during the FIFA World Cup match.  (Maja Hitij - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

USA’s Christian Pulisic reacts after the 1-1 draw between the USA and Wales in the FIFA World Cup match. (Maja Hitij – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Instead the U.S. squandered several scoring chances, wasted impressive performances, and the Welsh legend waited for dear life to concede a penalty kick after fouling Gareth Bale in the box in the 82nd minute.

The US should never have conceded that goal or suffered in the final 20 minutes of regulation or stoppage time.

Should have won.

It didn’t. That now adds to the pressure for Friday’s game against a more challenging England side.

And yet…

It was another type of American team that produced an all-too-familiar result. The start of the game showed what this group of U.S. players can be, should be, and is capable of.

They were brave. They were aggressive. There were stretches of dominance. It was a fast, young, exciting and aggressive team. Christian Pulisic, 24, is showing every bit of the superstardom he was promised long ago, and now the nation is watching.

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Confident and charismatic – this was the kind of football team that spoke to American sentiment. It is a group that can be mobilized around the country regardless of technical knowledge.

For too long the US has stepped into major international competitions and played on its heels, hoping to survive, hoping not to be humiliated, and then trying to explain away often lackluster and limited results. I felt disappointed for a long time.

One thing is worse, or at least in the middle. Boring and bad is another.

The average American fan stereotypically has two types of international sports: We’re smart and we’re dumb. For a limited success, the country is not so much to resign itself to being there.

This was not the case with Wales.

From the beginning the Americans were adamant. They had better players, better possession and better pressure. They overpowered the Welsh with youth, creativity and sheer power.

USA's Tim Weah celebrates after scoring his team's only goal in Monday's match between the USA and Wales.  (Mark Atkins/Getty Images)

USA’s Tim Weah celebrates after scoring his team’s only goal in Monday’s match between the USA and Wales. (Mark Atkins/Getty Images)

It’s Wales trying to survive and praying for a counter-attack. They got the call they needed and it kept them alive. But they were not the best team.

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U.S. It’s everything you could want from soccer in terms of style. It was everything US soccer fans were begging to see. They should bring 90 minutes, they should be more consistent, but this, at least, was something.

This country has a lot of kids in sports, a lot of great athletes and a lot of young talent in major professional leagues. That’s why that basketball and football cliché is so tiresome.

The US has always been athletic enough. Lionel Messi stands 5-foot-7. Neymar weighs 150. These are not pitches full of LeBron James or Tyreek Hills.

However, often they did not play like the Americans. Often the team was meek and lacked the self-confidence that carried the country itself, albeit unwarrantedly. That was changed on Monday. A mega-talent with an unlimited motor, Pulisic was a key part of that. But there was more. Timothy Wee scored the goal in the 36th minute. Tyler Adams. Weston McKenney. Josh Sargent. And so on.

It was a 180 from the dull, lifeless pre-Cup friendlies that spoke to the same old.

If they can keep this up, if they can get into the knockout rounds, this could be a team the Americans really rally around. If…

The US didn’t win on Monday because, well, they’ve never won a World Cup game. But they deserved it. They should have.

That’s not enough. It can never be enough.

Even the score indicated was different.

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