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Gareth Bale’s late goal deals USMNT a 1-1 tie in its World Cup opener

The Americans played some terrific soccer in their first World Cup game in eight years, but Wales' superstar drew and scored an 82nd-minute penalty kick.

U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner dove at full stretch to try to stop Gareth Bale's penalty kick, but he couldn't get there.
U.S. goalkeeper Matt Turner dove at full stretch to try to stop Gareth Bale's penalty kick, but he couldn't get there.Read moreAshley Landis / AP

It had to be Gareth Bale, didn’t it.

The U.S. men’s team played some terrific soccer in its first World Cup game in eight years. But Wales’ perennial superstar drew and scored an 82nd-minute penalty kick to deal the U.S. a 1-1 tie in Al Rayyan, Qatar.

In the game’s early stages, the U.S. was flat-out dominant. It had 80% of the possession in the game’s first 10 minutes, Tim Weah nearly forced an own goal, and Josh Sargent flashed to the middle for a header that Wayne Hennessey haphazardly saved.

At the other end, goalkeeper Matt Turner passed the first tests of his and manager Gregg Berhalter’s claims of improved play with his feet.

The second-youngest team in Qatar didn’t look like a squad on which just one of its 26 players had been to a World Cup before.

There was one big downside, though: yellow cards in the 11th and 13th minutes to right back Sergiño Dest and central midfielder Weston McKennie. Both players landed rough challenges on Wales’ left wingback Neco Williams.

Bookings carry extra risk in World Cups, because two across any games before the quarterfinals earn a suspension for the game after the second.

» READ MORE: Meet the 26 players of the U.S. men’s soccer World Cup team

Weah opens the scoring

The U.S. kept up its high level, and in the 36th minute got a deserved reward: a superb team goal finished by Weah.

On a regain of possession, the play went from Walker Zimmerman to Antonee Robinson to Christian Pulisic. He set up Yunus Musah to receive a short pass, then started down the middle of the field.

Musah played to Josh Sargent, who laid the ball off to Pulisic and watched the Hershey native take flight. As Pulisic charged up the field, Weah ran in from the right flank, and Pulisic put the ball on a platter for him. Weah needed just one touch of the ball to flick it low past Hennessey.

The thousands of U.S. fans at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium erupted — including Tim’s father George Weah, who scored goals just like that in his star-studded playing days. George never played in a World Cup but achieved a bigger goal by becoming president of his native Liberia. He watched his son shine from a VIP suite, seated next to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

» READ MORE: Tim Weah made it to the World Cup after his father never did

At halftime, the U.S. had a 3-2 edge in shots, 66% of the possession, and most impressive of all, 90% passing accuracy: 314 completions out of 350 attempts.

In the 51st minute, Tim Ream joined the list of the yellow-carded. The 35-year-old had played well up to then, justifying U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter’s surprising decision to start him over Aaron Long.

Wales rallies

Slowly, Wales came into the game more. It targeted Dest in particular, between his booking and knowing he’s not a great defender. It also helped that Wales made a halftime attacking substitution, sending in 6-foot-5 striker Kieffer Moore for Daniel James.

A slew of crosses duly arrived, and the U.S. did enough to repel them — including a huge save by Turner after a 64th-minute Welsh free kick. Moore got on the ensuing corner kick and headed just over.

Medford’s Brenden Aaronson was the first U.S. substitute, replacing Weston McKennie in the 66th. McKennie notably appeared to have trouble with a groin muscle in the first half, but seemed fine in the second until his departure.

One of Aaronson’s first actions might have amused a few Union fans watching: the former Union star stole the ball from Los Angeles FC’s Bale, then took off the other way. Bale gave chase, and only just kept up.

» READ MORE: Fox’s World Cup coverage won’t address Qatar controversies, but Telemundo does it on opening day

The next U.S. substitutions were a triple move in the 74th: DeAndre Yedlin for Dest at right back, big Haji Wright for Sargent at striker, and Kellyn Acosta for Musah in midfield.

As well as the Americans were playing, the scoreboard hadn’t changed to add an insurance goal. And in the 80th minute, Wales got its chance: a throw-in, a quick break, a pass to Bale, and Zimmerman took him down in the box.

Standing right in front of thousands of red-clad Welsh fans, Bale smashed the shot past Turner, giving the team its first goal of its first men’s World Cup since 1958.

A surprising sub

The last U.S. substitution was Jordan Morris for Weah, a surprising move with Gio Reyna on the bench for the same position.

Berhalter told reporters after the game that Reyna, who has had multiple muscle injuries over the last two years — including last month — felt some tightness in a closed-door scrimmage against a Qatari club team on Thursday. Holding him out was “precautionary,” but the plan is for Reyna to be available for Friday’s game against mighty England (2 p.m., Fox29, Telemundo 62, Peacock).

“We’ve been building him up and think he can play a big role in this tournament,” Berhalter said. “The question is when. Hopefully Friday he’ll be another step ahead.”

Reyna then told reporters that he “definitely felt 100% going into today,” but admitted having “a little bit of tightness over the last few days.”

Whatever the truth is, it’s not the first time an athlete has given a sunnier self-diagnosis than coaches or doctors.

» READ MORE: World Cup TV schedule, live streaming, kickoff times on Fox and Telemundo

In those final minutes of the game, a clock that seemed to tick at a snail’s pace while the U.S. led was flying by again. A whopping nine minutes of stoppage time were given by the officials, but the U.S. couldn’t find the net. All that came of it was a yellow card to Acosta for tackling Bale, his LAFC teammate, to prevent a counterattack chance for Wales.

“I’m very proud of the team with the start that we had — we played with a bunch of confidence today, and for a large part of the game, we dominated the game,” U.S captain Tyler Adams told Fox’s TV broadcast. “But it comes down to the smallest details in games like this.”

After Friday’s game against England, the group stage finale is next Tuesday against Iran (2 p.m., Fox29, Telemundo and Peacock). England routed Iran, 6-2, earlier Monday, with five different English scorers finding the net.