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Can USMNT qualify from World Cup Group stages?

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The USA may not be known as one of the top soccer nations, but the USMNT has been making an impact in World Cup competitions right from the start.

The most successful US campaign in a World Cup came in the very first edition, in Uruguay in 1930, when the USMNT won both of their Group games to reach the semi-finals, where they were beaten by eventual tournament runners-up Argentina. Twenty years later, at their third World Cup, in 1950, they sensationally beat a famous England team, who were themselves making their tournament debut.

From 1990 onwards, the USMNT qualified for seven World Cups in a row, reaching the quarterfinals in 2002. After a disappointing failure to reach the 2018 tournament, they will once again be taking their place among the elite nations at the World Cup, in Qatar in November.

Overall, they have a 50/50 record when it comes to getting out of the initial Group stages, but they will face a tough challenge this time round when they take on Wales, England and Iran in Group B. In fact, sportsbooks and soccer bettors predicting the outcome of the Group rate the USA as third favourites, behind both England and Wales. With only the top two nations qualifying for the knock-out stages, it is clear that the USMNT face a stiff challenge in Qatar.

They won’t have much time to adjust either. Group B teams will be in action on the first day of the tournament, on 22nd of November, so Gregg Berhalter’s team will need to be able to start strong.

That first fixture, against Wales, will be crucial. In these small four-team Groups, a victory in the first game is a huge confidence booster and removes a lot of pressure for the remaining two fixtures. On the other hand, defeat in that game would heap the pressure on USMNT for their second and toughest Group fixture against a young and talented England team.

Gareth Southgate’s team reached the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup and the final of Euro 2020, and is packed with star players, many of whom have yet to reach their peak. England are overwhelming Group favourites and USMNT won’t be able to count on getting anything from that game, so a good performance against Wales in the opener is essential to their hopes. The key to that game will likely be finding a way to stop Los Angeles FC’s new star Gareth Bale.

The final game comes against Iran, and this is likely to be the only game in Group B in which the USMNT will start as favourites. That doesn’t mean that they can afford to be complacent. Iran famously beat the USA at the 1998 World Cup in France. Given the unfortunate history between these two nations, this fixture will also have an extra layer of tension and pressure. Still, this is the game that USMNT have the best chance of winning and having it last on the schedule could work in their favour.

So how many points will the USMNT need to reach the knockout stages? With three games in the Group and three points for a win, with one point for a tie, nine is the maximum available, but five and above points would give the USMNT a guarantee of the knock-out stages. So, victories over Wales and Iran would be enough for them to qualify, as would one win and two ties.

However, the most common points tally for teams in the Group stages of the World Cup is four, and that’s where qualifying gets tricky. Of the 34 teams to finish with four points in the Group Stage since 1998, exactly half have qualified for the knockout stages. So, if the games went roughly to form, with the USMNT beating Iran, drawing with Wales and losing with England, it would be a 50/50 chance for them to get through, as it was in 2014, when they progressed on four points thanks to a better goals differential than Portugal, who also finished with four points.

This makes that first game against Wales truly crucial. One factor in the USMNT’s favour could be the climactic conditions. Many USA-based players are far more comfortable playing soccer in the kind of heat that will prevail in Qatar than their opponents, and with little to choose between the two teams on rankings, Berrhalter’s USMNT will be targeting that game as an ideal opportunity to start strong.

Photo by Unsplash

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