For all the talk of tactics, strategy, squad selection and mentality, the U.S. men's national team's World Cup run could very well come down to one question. Can they stop Gareth Bale?
That question could certainly be the defining one of their opening match against Wales and, ultimately, their time in Qatar. If the U.S. were to defeat Wales, they'd put themselves in a strong position to reach the knockout rounds. Defeat, though, would leave a huge uphill climb ahead of the match against Group B favorites England on Friday.
Wales, though, are a good team, even if they have struggled a bit over the last few years. The results weren't quite there in Euro 2020 or the 2022 Nations League, but make no mistake, they are dangerous.
And the key reason why? Bale, of course. It's been that way for years.
For Bale, it (allegedly) was 'Wales, Golf, Madrid', and there's a reason Wales came first. When he puts on that national team jersey, whatever form he may be in at club level goes out the window. Bale is a different beast when playing for his country.
He tends to look more like Bale of old, the one that terrorized defenders in London and Madrid for years. Bale is one of those players that simply has 'it', the special ability to show up on the big stage.
What bigger stage is there than your country's first World Cup in 64 years? What bigger moment would there be for Bale to create one last memory for his country?
The USMNT are ready for the emotion Wales will bring to their first World Cup in over half-a-century. But will they be ready for Bale?
"You've just got to limit his time and space," said Bale's LAFC team-mate and USMNT midfielder Kellyn Acosta, "and obviously everyone knows his left foot. He's the guy to keep an eye on and I think he's super pivotal for the Wales team.
"He's the captain, the catalyst and, yeah, he's a special player, so it's about just kicking him around a little bit!"
It's not just Acosta that is familiar with the Wales star's heroics. The entire U.S. knows him well, having just got a pretty close look at big-game Bale.
After playing sparingly over the last few months, Bale provided one of the most dramatic moments in MLS history to lift LAFC to a historic trophy.
His 126th-minute header against the Philadelphia Union in the MLS Cup was quintessential Bale, making the impossible look possible. Despite certainly losing a step in recent years, Bale out-leapt 6'6 Jack Elliott, who himself had scored twice in the game, to score the equalizing goal.
It was the defining moment of the MLS season and, for the USMNT, it was another warning of what Bale can do when the spotlight is on him.
"One of the things that's scary about Gareth Bale is he can do things like that," USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter said. "That's so scary. Jack Elliott is 6'5 or 6'4 and he dunked on him!Getty
"He has that explosiveness, that free-kick and he can serve a ball. You have to be aware of him at any moment and if he doesn’t start the game, he comes on and he’ll worry you even more because you don’t have the chance to tire him out because he comes in fresh. He’s a dangerous player.”
Stopping Bale will depend on where he starts. He has played striker for Wales, which would see him occupy Walker Zimmerman and either Aaron Long or Tim Ream. Zimmerman faced off with Bale in MLS this summer, with the Wales star making a substitute appearance against Nashville SC, giving him some insight into what it's like to face the five-time Champions League winner.
As a striker, Bale is an obvious handful. His pace may not be what it once was, but it is certainly still there. His leaping ability single-handedly saved LAFC's MLS Cup. And his finishing, for years, has been world-class.
Zimmerman and whoever starts alongside him at centerback would need to be aware of Bale at all times and, as Acosta said, probably kick him a few times to let him know they're there, even if Bale says he won't be too fazed by physical treatment.
But what is perhaps more likely is that Bale starts out wide, with Kieffer Moore starting centrally. Moore is another player the U.S. is very familiar with as he plays for Bournemouth in the Premier League.
“He’s a big threat, we figured that out playing against Bournemouth,” said new USMNT captain Tyler Adams, who was referencing a 4-3 win for his Leeds United team over Bournemouth earlier this season. “He provides a completely different game plan to any team that you put him into.
“He’s amazing in the air, but he’s probably very underrated for his technical ability and finishing around the goal. For our centerbacks, I’ve already had a word with them. We talked about it in our scouting meeting. You’ve got to have a body on him at all times. He’s a problem.
“Being physical and trying to win the ball off him, it’ll be a tough one, but we have to stop him.”
Moore is one of a number of Wales players that will provide the U.S. with problems. Players like Dan James and Aaron Ramsey are high-level as well, with both having plenty of Premier League and, in Ramsey's case, Champions League experience.
But, despite it all, Bale is still the guy for Wales. He's the guy that led him here and he'll be the one to lead them through their run in Qatar.
Can the U.S. stop him? That may be what defines their own run in Qatar.