AL RAYYAN, Qatar — Walker Zimmerman wagged his left pointer finger in the air from where he lay sprawled out on the ground. He shook his head and yelled, “No, no, no, no, no!” But it was to no avail. The referee was already pointing to the penalty spot.
The United States had been leading Wales by the narrowest of margins in the teams’ return to the World Cup when, with roughly 10 minutes remaining before stoppage time, Zimmerman slid into the legs of the Welsh superstar Gareth Bale and sent him tumbling to the grass.
Soon Bale was on his feet again, blasting his penalty kick into the right corner of the net, scoring the goal that helped Wales snatch a 1-1 draw that may have suited both teams, but will have really pleased only one.
It was a cruel ending for the United States, which was returning to the biggest stage in men’s soccer for the first time in eight years and looked to be in control for much of the match after being staked to a first-half lead by forward Tim Weah. But it will have to do, for both of them, for now.
The Americans next play England, which defeated Iran to take the early lead in Group B, on Friday night.
With Wales bunkered in front of its goal, employing five defenders and stacking the rest of the team close by, the Americans, who enjoyed two-thirds of the possession in the first half, spent much of that time easing the ball from side to side, trying to find an opening, waiting for the Welsh to slip up or doze off for a moment.
The moment came, finally, in the 36th minute. Christian Pulisic received the ball on the run and surged through the heart of the Welsh defense, dragging two defenders with him. Weah simultaneously was making a slashing run toward the goal from the wing. Pulisic slotted a perfectly weighted pass into the penalty area, where Weah stutter-stepped and flicked the ball into the net with the outside of his right cleat.
Weah then wheeled away from the goal and slid toward a corner flag, where his teammates engulfed him in celebration.
Before Bale’s goal, Wales’ best scoring chances arrived around the 64th minute, when Ben Davies headed a ball that seemed to be destined for the goal until the American goalkeeper Matt Turner pushed it over the crossbar. On the ensuing corner, Kieffer Moore drilled a header of his own over the net.
Wales had displayed little sense of adventure until those attempts and otherwise struggled to string together more than a few passes at a time. As the second half continued, the Americans seemed to be cruising toward a crucial opening victory.
Until Bale stepped up, as he so often does, to steal away the spotlight.