The U.S. finds itself in Group B with England, Iran and the winner of the playoff in UEFA that involves Wales taking on the winner of the semifinal in that pod between Scotland and Ukraine. Could the draw have been worse for the U.S.? Definitely. The doomsday scenario was avoided, but one could argue that if Wales — the highest-ranked of those playoff teams — gets through, the U.S. has one of the tougher groups.
Sure, Groups E and G have higher average ELO scores, but no other group would have the kind of depth of competition that Group B has. Based on FIFA’s rankings — which admittedly should be taken with a grain of salt — Iran is the lowest-ranked team in Group B at No. 21. The fourth-ranked team in every other group has a worse ranking.
If Wales doesn’t get through, things should be easier, but still complicated. If Ukraine is the team that ends up qualifying, it will be playing with an immense reservoir of emotional motivation given the ongoing war. In pure soccer terms, that will present its own special kind of challenge.
For U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter, the excitement of qualifying earlier in the week and then knowing at least most of his team’s opponents was the overriding emotion on the day.
“It was amazing to get England in our group,” he said. “I think that’s a game that always has a lot of attention around it because of England and their fans and their established place in soccer.
“And then we have Iran, which is a difficult opponent given they’ve finished first in their group of qualifying in Asia, the first Asian team to qualify after [hosts] Qatar, scored a lot of goals, dangerous team and then the unknown of Scotland, Wales or Ukraine. Scotland and Wales are pretty similar in terms of how they’re approaching the game. With Ukraine it’s completely different. So some challenges there but overall, positive. We’re looking forward to competing.”
There is history to be considered as well. As the U.S. discovered to its detriment in 1998, Iran is perfectly capable of winning such a matchup. Iran is consistently one of the top teams in the Asian Football Confederation, reaching the semifinals of the Asian Cup as recently as 2019.
“I’m a little bit nervous that the public or the media may take Iran lightly,” said Berhalter. “But it’s not a team to take lightly. It’s going be a good opponent.”
Of course, Gareth Southgate’s side will be the favorites to progress, even as the U.S. has historically given the English all it could handle. Yes, the pedigree of U.S. players has increased in the past decade in terms of the club teams for which they play, but England have a considerable talent edge. Berhalter provided a rundown of England’s incredible depth at right-back to illustrate just how much quality the Three Lions have. That isn’t a guarantee of anything, of course, as the U.S proved at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa when it held England to a 1-1 draw and topped the group via the goals-scored tiebreaker.
U.S. attacker Christian Pulisic admitted there had already been a few conversations with his teammates at Chelsea, Mason Mount in particular, about the England matchup, but he stressed that wouldn’t provide any additional motivation ahead of the match.
“I don’t think that’s what brings extra [motivation],” Pulisic said. “I think a World Cup match for our country is all we need, no matter who it is against. I’m not going to be thinking about that, really, at all. It’s going to be a good test either way. So we’re going to give it our all and hopefully we’ll be on the right end of that.”
Should the U.S. manage to finish second in Group B, a matchup against the Group A winner, most likely the Netherlands, beckons. But if the U.S. can repeat its feat from 2010 and top the group, a tough matchup against one of hosts Qatar, Ecuador and Senegal — with its superstar trio of Sadio Mane, Edouard Mendy and captain Kalidou Koulibaly — awaits. Getting past any one of those teams and reaching the quarterfinals, where a matchup with Argentina is possible, would be a magnificent accomplishment.
But that is getting ahead of ourselves. The fact that the U.S. will play on the opening day of the tournament complicates the team’s preparations. Berhalter said that a pre-tournament camp in Dubai had to be scrapped because teams need to be in Qatar five days ahead of their first game, and players will only be released a week prior to the start of the World Cup.
That will require the U.S. making the most of the two remaining international windows in June and September. In June, the U.S. has two games in the CONCACAF Nations League, and Berhalter said he would bring in his full team.
“Guys need to be available for [the Nations League] and need to be involved in that if they want an opportunity to compete in the World Cup,” he said.
One bit of good news is that Weston McKennie, who is recovering from a broken left foot, expects to be back in full training with club side Juventus by the end of April. He remains hopeful that he’ll get some club games in, with the hope that those matches will get him ready for the Nations League.
In terms of the September window, the U.S. is in the process of trying to line up teams that are outside of its comfort zone, and do what it can to match up with its group-stage opponents, although that isn’t easy.
“It’s not an exact science,” Berhalter said. “It’s not like if you play Saudi Arabia, that’s the exact replica of Iran, but it will help. I think we’re familiar with the body types, the athletic types.”
Berhalter has eight months to prepare and fine-tune his team. With the draw complete, the countdown to the start of the tournament has really begun.