By Clemente Lisi – NEW YORK, NY (Aug 22, 2022) US Soccer Players – The upcoming September friendlies for the USMNT against Japan and Saudi Arabia will be the final chance to see the team ahead of its World Cup opener versus Wales. It’s also a great time to scout the USMNT’s group-stage opponents and what we might expect from a formidable trio of nations.
The World Cup is really two tournaments. First, there’s the group stage. Finish in the top two and advance to the knockout round, where it’s one and done in games that would go to extra time or even need penalties to get a winner. That’s where anything can happen. It’s where Cinderella teams emerge and a champion ultimately crowned.
The United States plays fellow Group B side Wales on November 21, followed by England four days later on Black Friday. The USMNT closes the group stage on the 29 versus Iran. The Americans have never played Wales at the World Cup. They last faced England at a World Cup in 2010, where the sides played to a 1-1 draw. The US lost to Iran 2-1 in their last World Cup meeting in 1998.
After the draw, midfielder Tyler Adams sized up the group this way: “I feel like you start to realize, now going through processes like qualifying and just watching World Cups before, is there’s really no easy game. When everyone’s playing on such a stage, what you think is going to be the easiest game ends up being the hardest game.”
With three months to go before the World Cup, here’s how the USMNT’s group-stage opponents are doing.
Wales (19th in the latest FIFA rankings)
The Americans open against Wales, a tricky side that has found some success on the international stage in recent years. The 2016 Euros come to mind, where Wales reached the semifinals. Wales, making their first World Cup appearance since 1958, need to find similar form if they want to advance to the knockout round.
One big name associated with Wales is their talisman Gareth Bale. No stranger to Americans since signing with LAFC this summer, Bale’s form is something we see week in and week out. As of now, Bale is in great form after scoring twice in just four matches in MLS.
Tactically, Wales plays a 4-3-3 under manager Rob Page that turns into a 4-1-4-1. The USMNT will be familiar with these tactics in that Page likes a high-pressing game where players in the midfield and wings use a high work rate to get the ball up the field. Wales is a well-balanced team. Their defense is strong, and they will prove formidable in this group. Aaron Ramsey serves as playmaker, collecting balls and looking for target men like Bale. This is often a predictable offensive system, but Bale remains the difference in the final third and is certain to give defenders fits in Qatar.
Next game: Away at Belgium in Brussels on Sept. 22 (UEFA Nations League)
England could very well be one of the deepest sides at this tournament. Semifinalists at the last World Cup and runners up at last year’s Euros, they’re among the favorites to win it all. Winners of the World Cup in 1966, the Three Lions under manager Gareth Southgate feature many of the Premier League’s best players.
While this England team is very good, they did not look sharp the last time we saw them earlier this summer at the UEFA Nations League, losing twice to Hungary in a span of 10 days. Their 1-0 loss on the road followed by a 4-0 defeat at home raised questions that there’s not a lot of time to fully address.
Tactically, Southgate fields a 4-3-3 that often morphs into a 4-2-3-1 with plenty of possession. Overlapping runs and tough midfield play are what we can expect from England. The team can score goals, striker Harry Kane remains their top striker, with the likes of Bukayo Saka, Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish and Raheem Sterling are all expected to be on the plane to Qatar.
Next game: Away at Italy in Milan on September 23 (UEFA Nations League)
It was back in January when Iran became the first team from Asia to qualify for the World Cup. The team has qualified for the World Cup six times, although they have never gotten past the group stage. Qatar 2022 represents the third straight World Cup for the Iranians. The team has had a disruptive qualifying campaign, which started under former Belgium coach Marc Wilmots before he was fired and replaced by Dragan Skocic. In July, the Iran FA fired Skocic only to reinstate him less than a week later after coming under widespread criticism.
Under Skocic, Iran plays a 4-3-3 that was convincing during Qualifying. Like most teams that use this tactical formation, Iran depends on possession and wing play to move the ball into the final third. The attacking trio features three players with European experience: Feyenoord’s Alireza Jahanbakhsh as the right winger, FC Porto’s Mehdi Taremi on the left, and Bayer Leverkusen’s Sardar Azmoun as center forward.
Next game: Versus Uruguay in Vienna on September 23 (friendly)
Next month’s friendlies will give us another glimpse at how the US and their first round opponents are doing heading into Qatar. The time-frame to scout and prepare is a quick one given that we’re in the middle of the club season. That said, there are early clues as how Wales, England, and Iran plan to play and look with under 100 days left to go until the World Cup kicks off.
Clemente Lisi is a regular contributor to US Soccer Players. He is also the author of A History of the World Cup: 1930-2018.
More from Clemente Lisi:
- Q&A with Stu Holden: “I genuinely think the US will give England a really good run in that match”
- A tactical preview of Concacaf countries at the 2022 World Cup
- Deals and loans set up an interesting season for USMNT players across Europe in 2022-23
- Venezia highlights American players in Serie B
Photo by Richard Callis – ISIPhotos.com