Sports

America’s World Cup Draw Is Pretty Lucky

It won’t be easy, but its path to the knockout stage could have been much tougher.

Reyna dribbles the ball as Pulisic runs behind him
Gio Reyna and Christian Pulisic in the first half at Exploria Stadium on Sunday, in Orlando. Julio Aguilar/Getty Images

The United States men’s national soccer team now knows the road it will take at the 2022 World Cup, and it is a treacherous one, though not in the way you might expect.

The draw on Friday placed the U.S. in Group B along with England, Iran, and a European team to be named later. That last team remains unknown because one of the participants in that playoff path is Ukraine, whose semifinal match with Scotland was postponed from March to June due to the Russian invasion. The winner of that match will play Wales, which has already advanced, for the final spot in Group B. On Twitter, it’s already the Geopolitics Group, or the problematic takes group.

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It’s fun, if a little tiresome, to invoke the long Anglo-American history in a sporting context now that we are in the friendly part of our friendly rivalry. It is significantly less so with Iran, where we are not, and somehow even more precarious in the case of Ukraine. (Plenty of American fans seem to be thinking that they really don’t want to be forced into a situation where they have to root against Ukraine, but I’d posit that it’s better to root for them to lose to the U.S. in the group stage than to lose to Scotland or Wales before the tournament, or to have to bow out of the competition entirely.) A group like this puts into perspective the limits of international soccer’s situational jingoism. National teams shouldn’t always be burdened with being stand-ins for nations, or at least only the home fans should get to treat them that way.

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What does it mean from a sporting standpoint? It could have been worse. The U.S. avoided the most dangerous threats in each of the other pots—teams like Poland, Senegal, and Ecuador. On the one hand, this England team might be the favorites to win the entire thing; it had the third-best odds before the draw, with only Brazil and France ahead of them. On the other, the Three Lions have also choked in winnable games late in two consecutive major tournaments, throwing away potential victories by playing too tentatively. The U.S. could easily spring the upset if it catches England thinking ahead to a Wales or Scotland matchup. The danger for the Americans may come less from England’s superior talent and more from the fact that it’s a lot better at set pieces than the U.S. has been, which is just the way England manager Gareth Southgate likes it.

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Iran stormed through the last round of Asian qualifying, losing just once (to South Korea, away) in the final round to top its group. With the two teams meeting in the last match of the first round, it could be the decider for the U.S., which lost to Iran in the 1998 tournament. Wales has a lot of talented young Premier League players sporting the part-time stylings of Gareth Bale, who mostly plays golf for Real Madrid, making just five appearances this season, but is still devastating for his country. Scotland appears a little less dangerous without a Bale capable of pulling goals out of nowhere, but held England to a 0–0 draw at the Euros in the group and possesses a midfield that could make life hard for the U.S. Ukraine made the quarterfinals of that tournament before falling to England, but its only wins came against Sweden and North Macedonia. Wales is surely favored; it has a talented team and is already halfway there, but if Ukraine gets to continue in the tournament, then it seems foolish predicting what they may or may not be capable of on paper.

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Will the U.S. advance? It has to like its odds, but short tournaments are high-variance events (ask Gonzaga). The USMNT drew one of the easiest groups in the 2010 tournament (England, Algeria, Slovenia) and one of the most difficult in the 2014 tournament (Germany, Portugal, Ghana) and managed to advance out of both. There is no guarantee it will do so this time. Teams with Mo Salah, Sadio Mané, and Robert Lewandowski crashed out in the 2018 group stages. But if the U.S. does make it through to the knockout stages, it will then face a team that comes out of Group A, most likely one of two popular dark horses in the tournament: the Netherlands or Senegal.

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The U.S. on a good day is good enough to beat any of those teams, but on a bad day the reverse is even more true. The U.S. has a lot of good and bad days.

On a neutral day, it’s tougher to predict. The U.S. was mostly good in qualifying, but it has been playing in a bubble for a long time now, squaring off against just a handful of non–North American teams in the past year. (It did play Wales to a 0–0 draw in the first match back after the pandemic began, in late 2020.) The last time the U.S. played someone who will be among the favorites in 2022 was a November 2018 friendly against, of all people, England. It lost 3–0. (America’s next game against the failed-to-qualify-but-still-current-European-champions Italy was a 1–0 defeat.) Berhalter hadn’t even been hired yet. Gio Reyna and Ricardo Pepi were still MLS Academy players. Seemingly half the player pool has turned over since then.

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People will try to blame U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter for this, saying he’s been ducking tough opposition to hide his team’s shortcomings, but people will blame Berhalter for anything if you give them half a chance. The true culprits are the lost year of the pandemic and the knock-on effect it had compressing international schedules afterward, as well as the new CONCACAF Nations League competition adding extra regional games to the calendar.

All of which is to say that this USMNT is unproven, and one suspects that the team would be best served testing itself against whatever quality opposition it can find. Except there are only six international dates on the calendar between now and November, and the Nations League is calling again, with two days of fixtures lined up in June just as the European players will be ending their seasons. That’s unfortunate timing; groups for that competition haven’t been drawn yet, but the U.S. and the continent’s other qualifiers should be using that period to test themselves against World Cup foes, not Martinique and Grenada. (UEFA is also planning to use those dates for its Nations League competition.)

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After that, FIFA has scheduled a two-game international window in September that’s the last chance to play international games before players are released for the World Cup on November 14. The first U.S. match of the big tournament kicks off Nov. 21, so there likely won’t be time to squeeze in a warm-up friendly, but there’s no doubt that preparations will be hampered by the unorthodox start date. (Typically the World Cup is played in June and July, but it was moved to later on the calendar this year because of host Qatar’s high temperatures.)

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This U.S. team could benefit from the traditional weeks of preparation that are being lost due to the November start date. The players America used in qualifying had the youngest age of any already-qualified team by two entire years. (New Zealand, which could still qualify, is closer to 1.5 years older.) More importantly, the best players have spent so few minutes on the field together that there has been precious little opportunity for them to see how they might raise each others’ games. This kind of connection is already evident in the midfield; Yunus Musah always appears more involved and more dangerous when he’s playing next to Weston McKennie as opposed to another partner.

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Similarly, Reyna might be key to unlocking the best version of Pulisic for his country. Reyna’s ability to draw defenders and then find runners with passes through narrow gaps may allow Pulisic to spend more time working behind the defense rather than in front of it, getting the ball close to goal where he can perform the sort of magic he did for his capper against Panama. Sergiño Dest and Reyna—likely starters at right back and right wing in an ideal world—never got to play together on that side during qualifying.

National teams are collages; the players grow and change in isolation at their clubs, then every couple of months they have to be fitted together in the best way possible. This U.S. team is still a work in progress, but it should have the talent to make it out of this group, if it can avoid too many bad days.

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