FIFA World Cup: Everyone is on a long and futile quest for goals

There were crosses that had hissed low at Josh Sargent, clipping the turf, and crosses that arced high in the air. Some came out of the deep, floating and hanging, and others popped up instantly, trudging through a thicket of dangling legs and stretching bodies.

Almost all of the many different types of crosses that were delivered in Sargent’s vicinity had only one thing in common: they left as soon as they arrived. Some wandered the length of the box and bounced out of play on the other side of the field, unaffected by human touch. Others were snatched from the air by Wayne Hennessey, the Welsh goalkeeper, and clutched greedily to his chest.

There was one exception to Sargent’s defense: a sharp, instinctive header from a cross Antonee Robinson smuggled in from the touchline when the game was young and fresh, thwarted only by a vague combination of Hennessey’s powerful fist and a goalpost.

Fans watch the first match of the 2022 FIFA World Cup between Qatar and Ecuador from Doha Corniche in Doha, Qatar on Sunday 20th November 2022. (Erin Schaff/The New York Times)

However, that alone probably wouldn’t be enough to refute the long-standing belief that the biggest single flaw in this US roster is the glaring Achilles’ heel that will limit his progression at this World Cup – and all upcoming World Cups until then – is solved that it is not in possession of a cutting edge. Goals don’t come easy for the United States.

US coach Gregg Berhalter racked his brains trying to find a solution in his four years as coach. Sargent might be seen as his default option, the fact that he’s not a cold-eyed finisher is offset to some extent by the intelligence of his moves, the willingness of his runs, and the infinity of his energy reserves.

But on the road to this World Cup there were times when Jesús Ferreira got a chance too. For a few months it was believed – or at least there was a strong attempt to believe it – that Ricardo Pepi might be the answer. Jordan Pefok has been touted as a possible solution for a while. Gyasi Zardes, barely in the spring of his career, tried it.

When neither could convince, Berhalter included Haji Wright in his squad for the Qatar tournament, returning once again to Sargent – ​​in fine form for Norwich City, his England second tier club side – as his first choice. He and the team ended up back where they started.

The problem, of course, isn’t that the US can’t score goals; it’s that it has to work so hard for each and every one of them. The goal that Tim Weah scored against Wales, the country’s first at a World Cup in eight years, was suitably beautiful, intricately crafted and aesthetically pleasing: a quick spin from Christian Pulisic, a through ball that went wide, only Weah’s break a moment to adjust his foot to drive the ball under Hennessey.

Participants watch the 2022 FIFA World Cup Opening Ceremony at Al Bayt Stadium in Al Khor, Qatar on Sunday 20 November 2022. (Tasneem Alsultan/The New York Times)

However, only scoring perfect goals is a curse. A team hoping to reach the knockout rounds has to score in other ways too: the shoddy goals, the shoddy goals, the lucky goals, the cheap goals and the dirty goals, the goals that came out of nowhere come and the goals that come out of play the percentages, the goals that bring just a touch of shame. This US team doesn’t, at least not as often as it should.

Of course, it wasn’t Sargent’s fault that each and every one of those crosses proved disappointing. Some of them were too hot, too cold, too hard, too soft, a Goldilocks selection of supplies. But making the best of imperfect materials is the striker’s craft rather than art, the quality that separates the outstanding from the merely gifted.

This absence is not only noticeable in the American squad. There are plenty of gold-standard forwards at this tournament – Robert Lewandowski and Harry Kane, Lautaro Martínez and Kylian Mbappé – and a few more, from Erling Haaland to Mohamed Salah to Karim Benzema, who aren’t.

But it’s their rarity that makes these players so special. Because his skills are so scarce, Manchester City were willing to meet Haaland’s exorbitant financial demands; Because the reward could be so large, Liverpool were persuaded to pay a premium for Darwin Núñez, best regarded in his constituent parts as an elite striker.

Everyone else – especially at international level, where problems cannot be solved with hard cash – have to make do with what is available to them. Ecuador, for example, opened the World Cup with two goals from Enner Valencia, who is now 33 and drifting into the autumn of his career in Turkey.

The Dutch began their campaign spearheaded by Vincent Janssen, a roving striker who has spent the last few years in Turkey (it’s always Turkey) and Mexico and now Belgium. There were times when at Ahmed Bin Ali Stadium you could believe that Wales had given their team a statue of Gareth Bale.

There’s a reason for that. Bale had barely touched the ball when the clock ticked and his country’s long-awaited World Cup return threatened to quickly turn sour, firing in front of Walker Zimmerman to find a hopeful ball from the outside lane. It wasn’t a particularly good pass. It wasn’t a particularly promising situation. Bale was facing away from the goal, the American defense in order.

But it’s the striker’s craft to make the best of limited material. Bale’s outburst was sudden enough to take Zimmerman by surprise; By the time he realized what he was doing, he had already hit Bale in the ankle. 33-year-old Bale went down. Penalty. He stood staring at the ball, controlling his breathing, and then swept it past Matt Turner’s outstretched arm.

It was a goal Wales deserved at the time, but it wasn’t a goal they had to work particularly hard for. It was a cheap goal, a dirty goal, the kind of goal that wasn’t so much scored by a striker as it was fabricated.

For all the energy of Sargent or Wright’s raw talent, the United States has no such player; if that were the case, they would most likely have beaten Wales on Monday night, taking a sizeable leap towards qualifying for the Round of 16 in the process. In this absence, his long, desperate search for targets – the unkempt and seedy, the ugly and imperfect – will continue.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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