While the United States may have avoided the toughest group at the 2022 World Cup, it’s an open question if there really is a toughest group this time around. Playing England, Iran, and the UEFA playoff winner isn’t exactly straightforward. The other three now wait until June to see if it’s Wales, Ukraine, or Scotland taking the final spot in the group. Drawing the toughest of the playoff slots complicates the group, potentially creating a scenario where all teams are in FIFA’s top 25.
For the USMNT, they split the difference with group B. England is 5th in the world rankings. Based on relative strength, it could’ve been worse (Brazil and Belgium), and it could’ve been better (Qatar). It’s worth remembering what the goal looked like when the USA drew 1-1 with England in South Africa. Robert Green chasing the ball after almost stopping Clint Dempsey’s shot as it slowly rolled behind him.
That group ended with the United States in 1st-place on the goals for tiebreaker over England. Both finished with five points, only winning on the final matchday. The USMNT exited to Ghana in the round of 16, and England had no answers in a 4-1 loss to Germany.
With that in mind, it becomes difficult to decide that England now is an ideal opponent. UEFA World Cup qualifying isn’t always straightforward. Their group setup where the winner advances is lengthy but includes every nation in the region. So England went undefeated in a group that included Poland, who advanced through the playoffs, but also Andorra and San Marino. There’s only so much to take from those ten group games where lopsided wins over the outmatched teams had England’s goal difference at +36.
Iran beating the United States 2-1 at the 1998 World Cup was part of the push for change. In a group with two UEFA representatives, navigating both Germany and the former Yugoslavia was never going to be easy. Losing to Iran meant leaving France with no points and a -4 goal differential. The rebuild for the 2002 World Cup started there.
Iran only picked up the three points against the United States back in 1998, missing the 2002 and 2010 edition. In 2018, they finished 3rd in group B, beating Morocco and converting a stoppage time penalty to draw with Portugal. Spain and Portugal both advanced a point ahead of Iran.
They’re currently the highest-ranked team in the Asian Football Confederation, 21st in the world, ahead of 23rd-ranked Japan and 29th Korea. They finished in front of Korea in group A of the final round of qualifying though they drew and lost with the 2nd-place finishers. Both advanced to the World Cup directly.
Group B’s final team waits for the conclusion of the UEFA playoffs. Wales knocked out Austria in Path A, waiting on the winner of Scotland vs Ukraine in June. Wales finished second to Belgium in group E, Scotland was four points behind Denmark in group F, and Ukraine was six points behind France in group D.
Since it was the FIFA ranking seeding the tournament, Wales is currently 18th, Scotland 39th, and Ukraine 27th. Wales would’ve been the top team in pot 3 of the draw, which started with 20th-place Senegal. As for who eventually advances, tither of the home countries playing England in a World Cup game changes the scope of the group. That becomes a highlight game, putting a regional rivalry on the international stage. Ukraine making it through to the World Cup is its own story.
For the USMNT technical staff, there’s no time for a waiting game. They open against the UEFA playoff winner on November 21. How many matchdays they’ll have between then and now is the question, with the expectation of limited time prior to the World Cup.
Once again, that changes what we think we can assume about the tournament. We simply don’t know how national teams will respond to shorter prep times and getting a team to gel on another compacted schedule. As a result, the last World Cup of the 32-team era will be different. What that means from a competitive standpoint was already occupying the minds of every coach, player, and fan. The draw makes it real, but it doesn’t make it any more straightforward.