Needless to say, the group stage the United States Men’s National Team is about to open is not a tune-up for what happens in November. The Concacaf Nations League, where the United States will face the 170th (Granada) and 74th (El Salvador) ranked world team, begins for the Americans on Friday night in Texas, and it will seem a world away from the World Cup, even if Austin’s Q2 stadium is where the United States beat Qatar in the Gold Cup semi-finals last summer.
But that’s part of the preparation that the United States must undertake due to the function of the international calendar, and after a victory against Morocco and a draw against Uruguay, time continues to turn towards the group stage in november.
Since the 2022 World Cup draw, there have been a few schools of thought regarding the United States’ chances in Qatar. On the one hand, it looks incredibly manageable, especially compared to the Ghana-Portugal-Germany task of ’14. On the other hand, there may be more to it than meets the eye when it comes to the perception of the quartet.
Wales’ qualification on Sunday completed the puzzle, and we now know that the United States will open against Gareth Bale & Co. on November 21 before the dates already scheduled with England (November 25, for a morning of the Black Friday in the United States) and Iran (November 29). Three games in just over a week and three of the top 21 teams in the world – at least according to the March FIFA rankings – are what stand between the United States and the knockout stage.
Could it have been worse for the United States? Absolutely. England may be England fresh out of a 2018 World Cup semi-final and Euro 2020 final, but that’s familiar commodity, if nothing else. Facing a second UEFA nation in Wales is largely a product of the luck of the draw, but this is a nation that hasn’t played in a World Cup since 1958. While so few in the group of young American players with World Cup experience, there is still an advantage on that front when it comes to the Dragons. And then there’s Iran, who may not be among the world’s elite powers, but they performed better than any other team in the Asian qualifying tournament and gave Spain and in Portugal all they could manage in Russia in 2018, narrowly missing out on the knockout stage. Team Melli is the strongest “weakest link” in one of the eight World Cup groups. It may not be a true group of death, but in many ways it’s also the toughest and most balanced group the United States could have drawn.
Wales, 18th in the FIFA rankings used to determine the pots for the April draw, would have been the top-ranked team in Pot 3 had they qualified on time, meaning the states United have apparently drawn two of the top three teams from Pot 3 in addition to the Three Lions. The only reason Wales ended up in a Pot 4 side was due to the postponement of their UEFA qualifying play-off draw due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which forced that playoff winner to be a pot last team regardless (for what it’s worth, Ukraine would also have been a Pot 3 team, albeit the second lowest ranked team, while Scotland would have been in Pot 4 anyway).
To Gregg Berhalter’s credit, the USA manager acknowledged the threat on the day of the draw, especially as it concerns the team that most will undoubtedly overlook.
“Iran, in general, I think it’s going to be a big challenge for us. I’m a bit afraid that the public or the media will take Iran lightly. But they’re not a team to take it lightly. He’ll be a good opponent,” he said, long before Wales’ qualification was sealed.
“So overall it will be a solid group. When you add this European team to it, it’s going to be a well-balanced group and it’s going to be difficult to move forward. But it’s positive, because I think everyone is going to fight and… I think it will come down to the last game.
Scroll to continue
It may indeed come down to this last game, but it is the first game that has the ability to truly dictate the fortunes of the United States. In the seven World Cups the United States has participated in in the modern era, a failure to get at least one point in the first game has resulted in elimination in the group stage. Not being able to really prepare for this first opponent for a few months – Spain and France are the other teams still waiting for their first marching orders; the remaining playoffs will be sorted next week – put the United States at a slight disadvantage.
“It’s a bit strange when you’re drawn into a group, and it’s one of three teams you can play,” Berhalter said on Sunday. “So in terms of preparation it’s stalled a bit, but now it’s full steam ahead to focus on Wales.”
In the same way that it’s easy to look at Wales and shrug your shoulders – Sunday’s performance, while victorious, shouldn’t have scared anyone – so too is the perception from outside the United States- United. The English tabloids already had fun in early April, and Robert Page, whose first game as interim Wales manager as Ryan Giggs faces domestic abuse charges was a 0-0 draw against the United in November 2020, was reverential, but he thinks three points are there for the taking.
“We played against the United States. We know they are a very strong team,” Page told BBC Wales, when discussing his squad’s group outlook. “We played against their Europe-based players, in my first game. They [and Iran] are winnable games and when you play against a national team anything can happen.
The task has cleared up for all four teams now, and with so many chances to roll on USA’s opener and what that will mean for subsequent games, there’s finally the chance to start working out the game plan. match to navigate it.
“Now we finally know our opponent, and we can finally target this group and how we are going to come out of it,” American defender Walker Zimmerman said on Sunday. “They each have their different challenges and playing a guy like Gareth Bale I think is something we can all be excited about.”
It’s certainly better than a Nations League night in June in Austin against Grenada.
More football coverage: