Wales or Scotland or Ukraine, 21 November
It’s unclear when exactly the US will know the identity of their opponents in their first game, given the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, but some time in June appears most likely. Wales, who beat Austria 2-1 in a playoff semi-final on 24 March courtesy of two superb goals from Gareth Bale, will face the winners of a match between Scotland and Ukraine.
Wales were semi-finalists at Euro 2016 and reached the round of 16 at Euro 2020. They would perhaps represent the most challenging opponents for Gregg Berhalter’s men. Bale will be 33 at kick-off in Qatar but the Real Madrid reserve remains a formidable talent, while the pace of Leeds United attacker Dan James tormented Austria.
Scotland were bottom of their group at Euro 2020. They were ultimately well beaten by the Czech Republic and Croatia but did pick up a point with a spirited performance against England at Wembley. Ukraine were third in their group behind the Netherlands and Austria but still made it to the quarter-finals. They raised their game for a 2-1 extra-time win over Sweden in the first knockout round, but lost 4-0 to England.
fifa world ranking Wales 18th; Ukraine 27th; Scotland 39th
Best World Cup performance Wales, quarter-finals, 1958; Ukraine, quarter-finals, 2006; Scotland, group stage, eight times
England, 25 November
A fixture that always fizzes with historical and cultural resonance, and it’ll be extra-special not only for Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic, but for two other players who started against Costa Rica this week: Yunus Musah, a former England youth international who was courted by Gareth Southgate before choosing the US last year, and the Milton Keynes-born Fulham defender Antonee Robinson. The England connections don’t end there: Gio Reyna was born in Sunderland; goalkeeper Zack Steffen plays for Manchester City, while a possible first choice between the posts in Qatar, Matt Turner, is joining Arsenal in the summer; another goalkeeper, Ethan Horvath, is on the books at Nottingham Forest.
England ran out 3-0 winners in the most recent meeting between the sides, a friendly in 2018 that was DC United legend Wayne Rooney’s international farewell – not that a game from four years ago means much considering the US’s dramatic rebuilding job under Berhalter.
Both nations are replete with exciting young talent, Jude Bellingham at the top of the English rising star list – but England are a few years ahead of the US on the learning curve and boast more recent big tournament experience and more players at leading clubs. Their depth and ability in midfield is likely to pose problems for the US – as it would for most teams. The current American first-choice center back pairing of Miles Robinson and Walker Zimmerman have been stalwarts in Concacaf qualifying lately, but will the MLS pair be able to handle Harry Kane and Raheem Stirling?
Famously – or infamously, depending on whether you spell “color” with a “u” or not – the nations met in 1950 and 2010, when Steven Gerrard’s early goal settled any English nerves. Oh wait, it didn’t. A few minutes before half time came the spill heard round the world, as goalkeeper Robert Green’s howler donated an equalizer to Clint Dempsey. The game ended 1-1 and thanks to Landon Donovan’s late heroics against Algeria the US went on to top the group ahead of Fabio Capello’s side.
Southgate’s team is more vibrant, more talented, more cohesive and coached far better, than that elderly, stilted and stressed-out England crop. They reached the semi-finals four years ago, losing 2-1 after extra time to a more savvy Croatia. Were it not for the manager’s tactical caution in last year’s Euro 2020 final against Italy, as the Three Lions failed to add to an early lead then were pinned back in the second half (similar to the Croatia semi), and the mismanagement of the penalty shootout, they’d probably be going into this tournament as European champions.
As it is, they’re likely to be hungry, confident and still improving when November rolls around. England were imperious in qualifying, albeit in a relatively easy group, scoring 39 times and conceding only three goals. They are the obvious favorites to top Group B in Qatar.
Key player Harry Kane
fifa world ranking 5th
How they qualified First in group, with eight wins and two draws from 10 games
Best World Cup performance Winners, 1966
Iran, November 29
Not a team to take lightly. This will be the third successive World Cup appearance for Iran, which ended up with the most points of any side in the final round of the Asian qualifiers. They reached Qatar back in January with three group games to spare. And they conceded only four goals as they topped their group’s table ahead of South Korea, who nevertheless beat them 2-0 in Seoul on 24 March.
Though Iran will be taking part in their sixth World Cup, they’ve never gone beyond the group stage. They were fairly impressive while finishing third in their group in 2018, though: beating Morocco 1-0 in their opening game, losing 1-0 to Spain, then securing a 1-1 draw with Portugal courtesy of an injury-time penalty.
In 29-year-old Porto striker Mehdi Taremi, who has scored 21 times this season for club and country, Iran have a bona fide goal threat – even when he’s upside-down. So is Sardar Azmoun, who joined Bayer Leverkusen in January after a prolific spell with Zenit St Petersburg.
There was, though, some tension last year between Taremi and the head coach, Dragan Skočić. That seems to be in the past; after all, they reportedly followed each other on Twitter, so everything must be OK. Skočić, a 53-year-old Croatia-born managerial nomad, took charge in 2020 after seven years coaching club football in Iran.
Iran and the US met back at France ’98, Iran running out 2-1 winners in a politically-fraught encounter. A friendly two years later in California was a 1-1 draw.
Key player Mehdi Taremi
fifa world ranking 21st
How they qualified First in group, with eight wins, one draw and one loss from 10 games
Best World Cup performance Group stage, six times