As the United States men’s national team backed into the FIFA World Cup on Wednesday night, Friday’s draw couldn’t have realistically worked out any better for them.
Returning to the World Cup for the first time since 2014, the Yanks will see England, Iran — two teams they’ve faced in a recent World Cup group stage showdown — alongside the winner of a European playoff in Group B.
Either Wales, Scotland or war-torn Ukraine will be the USA’s first 2022 World Cup opponent on the opening day of the tournament, Nov. 21. A Black Friday matchup against England on Nov. 25 will be the middle game of the group stage. Iran closes out the American’s three guaranteed games in Qatar on Nov. 29. Perhaps Group B is the feared “Group of Death” to some. Should Wales advance, the lowest-ranked FIFA team directly in the USMNT’s path would be No. 21 Iran. You’d be wrong. This is a dream group for the U.S.
Teams in other groups have much more experience in the knockout stages of the tournament. Fellow North American teams to qualify have an elite opponent in front of them, while many won’t fear England, the top-ranked team in Group B. Mexico was drawn into Group C alongside Argentina and Poland, with world-class striker Robert Lewandowski. Costa Rica, should it advance past New Zealand this summer in an intercontinental playoff, would await a challenge from both Spain and Germany. Canada opens Group F play against Belgium and would only advance to the Round of 16 should it finish better than 2018 runners-up Croatia.
Here’s a look at the eight groups:
The USA last faced England in a competitive match in both teams’ opening game of the 2010 World Cup, a 1-1 draw, best remembered by the huge blunder from British goalkeeper Robert Green, allowing a soft Clint Dempsey shot to roll out of his grasp and over the goal line. The Ted Lasso crossovers are going to be epic for the showdown with the Three Lions. Iran and the U.S. faced off at the 1998 World Cup, a competition where the Americans didn’t pick up a single point.
The American-Iranian match was dubbed the “most politically charged game in World Cup history” because of the confrontational political relationship between the two countries i.e. the hostage crisis of 1979 when Iranian students stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held U.S. diplomats prisoner for 444 days. Per FIFA regulations, the team listed second on the matchday sheets, Iran, needed to walk toward the first team listed, the United States, for pre-match handshakes. Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave the order that the Iranian team “must not walk towards the Americans.” After negotiations with FIFA, a group photo was taken instead.
The Americans have never faced Scotland, Ukraine or Wales at the World Cup. The European play-in between Scotland and Ukraine was delayed because of Russia’s senseless invasion of Ukraine. The winner of that playoff will face Gareth Bale and Wales for a spot in Qatar. Should Ukraine win those two matches, who wouldn’t be rooting for its success on the world stage? Facing a player the quality of Bale would be the toughest challenge a sometimes-shaky USA defense have faced in years. Scotland entering the same World Cup group as United Kingdom rival England would be epic.
As Iran was placed alongside England and the USA in Group B, one of three scenarios were guaranteed to play out. Either Cameroon, Ghana or the European qualifier would have completed the quartet. Getting the Euro playoff winner the Americans got the path of least resistance. Ghana and the United States would have faced each other for the fourth consecutive time the Yanks played in the tournament. Cameroon looked as impressive in World Cup qualifying as any African country.
The USA has a clear path to win Group B because of its deep talent pool, with a beatable second-place team coming out of Group A, a return to the quarterfinals is possible. There’s also a believable path to crashing out of the World Cup and not winning a single game. Iran can defend as well as most teams in the tournament. England has elite potential, although it falls short often. And the third U.S. opponent will have solid attacking options.
Coach Gregg Berhalter needs to have already placed phone calls to any European country willing to have a World Cup tune-up against the USMNT, whether that’s home or away. Getting on the field against a squad like Serbia or Switzerland, both of which are on the other side of the bracket, would help prepare the U.S. for when the real thing at the end of November. One slight advantage the Americans will have is the contingent of domestic players Berhalter calls in. Most worldwide leagues will break from their seasons to make way for the World Cup. Major League Soccer will be 100 percent done by the opening ceremonies. There’s guaranteed to be several MLS call-ups to Qatar. Can you see the USMNT playing in the event without Kellyn Acosta, Miles Robinson or DeAndre Yedlin? There are a few others closer to the 23-player cut-off.
Friday couldn’t have gone any better for the U.S. The Yanks have multiple months to prepare for whatever European team is the first to line up across from them on Nov. 21. The biggest hurdle has already been crossed in getting back to the World Cup after the embarrassment of sitting out the 2018 edition. The long-term progress with hosting in 2026 is now under the microscope until the tournament’s end. Any chance Berhalter has to lead the USMNT at a home World Cup can end easily in Qatar. Greggy could also shut up a lot of people about the USA’s uninspired play away from the States in recent months, myself included.