Today’s match between USA and Wales, November 21, 2002

The U.S. Draws Its World Cup Opener After a Late Wales Penalty Kick

The Americans’ physical style came back to cost them after a late penalty call allowed Welsh star Gareth Bale to tie the game.

Timothy Weah celebrates after scoring a goal in the first half.PHOTO: JOHN SIBLEY/REUTERS

By Andrew Beaton

Updated Nov. 21, 2022 4:49 pm ET

AL RAYYAN, Qatar—The United States Men’s National Team spent the past eight years on the sidelines of the World Cup after a disastrous failure to qualify in  2018. For the Americans, it was the ultimate missed opportunity. 

Then on Monday, the U.S. marked its return to the World Cup with another blown chance in its opening match against Wales. 

After taking an early 1-0 lead, and dominating the first half of the game, the Americans’ physical style came back to cost them in a game that ended in a 1-1 draw after star Welsh forward Gareth Bale lasered home a late penalty kick. 

After the U.S. racked up fouls throughout the game, it ultimately registered one that cost the team the win. Even before the game, the Americans detailed how they needed to be all over Bale—with one even suggesting they should kick him to slow him down. That’s exactly what turned the tables against them. 

U.S. defender Walker Zimmerman was whistled for a late penalty while tackling Bale. The call drew the ire of the U.S. fans on hand, but the referee never hesitated in awarding a penalty kick. 

After the foul, Bale struck home the penalty to tie the game in the 82nd minute, turning a feel-good opening performance for the U.S. into something far more dour. 

“Walking into that locker room after the game, you could see the disappointment in the group,” coach Gregg Berhalter said afterward. 

The tie does little to settle U.S. nerves after an extended absence from soccer’s biggest stage. The result puts the Americans in a pitched battle for a place in the knockout stage from the middle of Group B, where England is at the top after the Three Lions thumped Iran 6-2 earlier Monday. The Americans will also be underdogs in their next game—against England on Black Friday. 

Gareth Bale scored on a penalty kick to tie the game for Wales.PHOTO: RYAN PIERSE/GETTY IMAGES

Considering how most of the game went, this result is undoubtedly a disappointment for the Americans, who led much of the way with a performance built on physicality, precision and a young forward named Timothy Weah, who gave the Welsh fits for most of the evening at Ahmad bin Ali Stadium. Led by Weah’s 36th minute goal, the Americans appeared to be in control for much of the game. 

Weah, the 22-year-old son of Liberia President and former Ballon d’Or winner George Weah, was the driving force behind the early U.S. attack that owned the ball and repeatedly pushed deep into the Wales defense during the first half. Then he put home a goal that had shades of his father, a former star striker. After American star Christian Pulisic threaded a perfectly placed through-ball into the box, Weah needed just one touch off the right side of his right foot to redirect it past the goalkeeper. 

From the outset, the U.S. established a physicality with its Welsh counterparts. So the Americans tackled hard, aggressively pursued 50-50 balls and eventually crossed the line, according to the referees. 

In the 11th and 13th minutes, fullback Sergino Dest and midfielder Weston McKennie both received yellow cards for their physical tactics—two of four yellows the Americans ultimately received. And while the U.S. kept pressing down the field, Wales had successfully bunkered down, playing a line of five players in the back to thwart any opportunities. So the Americans faced the prospect that if either received another yellow, they could be down a player with the game tied 0-0.

After Weah’s goal, the U.S. entered halftime with a seemingly comfortable lead. The margin was only one, but Bale—who also received a first-half yellow card—was otherwise silent while Wales held just 29% of possession in the half. 

“We knew Wales was going to be very difficult to break down in and around the penalty box,” Berhalter said.

Quickly, though, that margin felt far more tenuous after the break. 

The Welsh pushed with far more purpose on the attack in the second half while the Americans suddenly looked tentative. Adding to the jitters, centerback Tim Ream gave the U.S. its third yellow card of the game. The Wales fans, who had been largely quieted by the Americans’ early dominance, came back to life. 

U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner makes a big save during the match.PHOTO: FRANCISCO SECO/ASSOCIATED PRESS

The lead looked like it might evaporate twice within the span of about a minute. First, off a set piece, American goalkeeper Matt Turner survived his first real test when he batted away a goalbound header from Welsh defender Ben Davies. On the ensuing corner, another header from forward Kieffer Moore just barely went over the goal. 

Finally, the Americans’ brute force tactics came back to haunt them. 

“Everytime you leave your feet in the penalty area, it’s a risk,” Turner said afterward. 

As Bale received a ball in the box, Zimmerman attempted to dispossess him—and went through the back of his legs instead. Turner guessed right on the penalty, but it was still no match for the scorcher that came off Bale’s foot. 

The tides had shifted so dramatically during the final third of the game, with Wales repeatedly creating opportune looks, that it seemed the Americans were the ones fortunate to emerge with a draw. 

The tie may also prove even more costly down the road because of the flurry of yellow cards. Should any of Dest, McKennie, Ream or Kellyn Acosta receive another booking, they would be suspended for a game, according to World Cup rules. 

That count doesn’t reset until the semifinals—a stage of the tournament the Americans can barely fantasize about at this point. 

Write to Andrew Beaton at

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