The USMNT is back in the World Cup. On Monday, the Americans will play their first game on this stage since their 2014 loss to Belgium where Tim Howard played arguably the best game a goalkeeper has ever played in the tournament. A whole lot has happened since then for the American men’s side, some of it was extremely bad (not making the World Cup in 2018) and some of it extremely good (making the World Cup in 2022, and also Tim Weah).
The thing with the United States, as it is constructed heading into Qatar, is that it’s a team that isn’t necessarily built for right now. Yes, the level of talent has never been higher, and some of the best players in the side are at some of the most prominent clubs in the world. There are Americans at Chelsea, Juventus, AC Milan, Leeds United, Borussia Dortmund, and Lille. The oldest of the seven guys in that group is Weston McKennie, who turned 24 in August. There are teenagers on the roster at clubs like Borussia Monchengladbach and Valencia, the starting goalkeeper — a position where players tend to peak a little later — is 28 and plies his trade at Arsenal.
There is one player on the entire roster, DeAndre Yedlin, who has played in a World Cup before. He played 115 minutes across three games with zero starts in 2014. Other than Ghana, no team in Qatar will have a younger roster than the United States.
This raises the question: What is the expectation for what this team can and should achieve in their return to the biggest stage in the sport? Unlike the women’s side, which enters every tournament in which they participate with the belief that they will win and more often than not achieves that goal, one can argue that the men’s side’s No. 1 priority should be building a foundation for 2026, when the World Cup is coming to America as part of a shared bid with Canada and Mexico. It is possible that nine of the team’s 11 first-choice starters (basically everyone but the non-Cameron Carter-Vickers center backs, comprised of Aaron Long, Tim Ream, and Walker Zimmerman) will be firmly in their primes in 3.5 years when that rolls around, and the team is guaranteed to make it as the host nation.
None of this is to say that the team should just be happy to be there. For years, much has been made of how this is a “golden generation” of American talent. Even if their best days are expected to come down the road, that does not mean it’s unfair to say they put forth a similar effort to the 2014 squad, which got out of the group before falling in the round of 16.
Group B is difficult. England is one of the best sides in the world and is one of the favorites in this tournament for a reason. The way they play, too, could and should flummox the Americans, which have not always done an especially great job figuring out opponents that want to stay compact and force you to break them down (hold this thought!). It can very easily be argued this does not maximize the talent the Three Lions are bringing, but in international football, pragmatism and playing to limit mistakes is not a bad idea. Regardless, while the team is going to play to win in every game and anything can happen on a given day, it would take something special to topple the English.
As such, the United States needs as many points as possible from their games against Wales and Iran — if the USMNT cannot get a result against them, the hope immediately becomes that England is able to win every game in group play. In 2018, every team that accrued five or six points in group play moved on. Two of the teams that accrued four (i.e. a win and a draw) advanced, the other two finished in third. To put it more plainly, a win and a draw has the potential to get hairy, a win and two draws and they’re very likely moving on, and a spot in the round of 16 is all but guaranteed barring some craziness if they get two wins. If they get seven or nine points, well, that would be nice
Beating Wales and Iran — the teams they play first and third, respectively, in group play — will not be easy. Wales, which has not made the World Cup in 60 years, is going to stay compact and likely concede possession to the Americans. When they win the ball, their best moments will come when they play direct. The pace possessed by the trio of Gareth Bale, Daniel James, and Brennan Johnson could give the United States trouble, especially if gigantic striker Kieffer Moore is there to hold up play and lay the ball off to the more pacey players around him.
Everything will come back to Bale, though, the talismanic, 5-time Champions League winner who is still capable of single-handedly willing Wales to wins. The longer the United States goes without putting the Welsh away, the more likely it is that Bale (for however long he is on the pitch) punishes them. A source for optimism for the USMNT is that Wales has one win and five losses in their last seven games.
Iran, meanwhile, has made five of the last seven World Cups, although they have never made it out of the group stage. Beyond the unrest occurring in the country that has led to players supporting protesters, the manager who led the team to qualification was fired in September and replaced with Carlos Queiroz, who previously led the side from 2011-19. Their top players are Mehdi Taremi and Sardar Azmoun — the latter of whom has dealt with a calf injury in recent weeks — and are quite good. The rest of their team is happy to sit back and absorb pressure, hoping that the opposing team will open up pockets of space that they can try to exploit.
All of this presents a problem for a United States side that has had two pretty consistent issues under Gregg Berhalter: they struggle away from home, and they have put forth some total stinkers against sides that are happy to play on the more conservative end of the spectrum. Take their last two friendlies prior to the World Cup, where the team lost 2-0 to Japan and picked up a 0-0 draw against Saudi Arabia. They put two shots on goal, both against the Saudis, with 11 total attempts across 180 minutes of joyless action.
It’s only fitting, then, that they are walking into a tournament away from American soil where the three teams that they’ll play in group play set up in a way that they’ve struggled to break down. The hope for the USMNT is that the squad has enough experience against these sorts of stingy opponent, enough individual quality possessed by its best players, and enough of the sort of optimistic naiveté that comes with being on this stage for the first time.
That might not happen! There is a very realistic scenario on the table where the United States gets rinsed by England and slogs its way to somewhere between 0-2 points in the other two games. When this team struggles, it really, really struggles, particularly when it comes to creating chances. The silver lining is that would be, one could argue, more of a setback than a disaster. It would be a big setback on a big stage, sure, but for a group this young, part of the journey is learning how to get over obstacles, and the World Cup is the biggest obstacle in the sport.
But the talent is there, the big match experience is there (they have a Champions League winner, for goodness sake), and the experience alongside one another is there. They’ve never had fullbacks like Sergiño Dest and Antonee Robinson. They’ve never had a collection of midfielders like Tyler Adams, Brenden Aaronson, McKennie, and Yunus Musah. They’ve never had the variety of attacking talent Christian Pulisic, Giovanni Reyna, and Weah possess. For everything about what the future holds, they have the talent to get out of the group and hope they can win a single-elimination game against some of the best teams in the world. The expectation, and the hope, is that Monday is simultaneously the end of a years-long effort to return to the World Cup and the start of something special.