While the U.S. men’s national team continues preparing for this fall’s World Cup with Sunday’s friendly against South American power Uruguay, the game that’ll have the most impact on the Americans’ fortunes in Qatar will be played more than 4,000 miles to the east in Wales.
Hours before the U.S. takes the field at Sporting Kansas City’s Children’s Mercy Park, Wales will host Ukraine in Cardiff to determine the last of Europe’s 13 World Cup participants. The victor will become the Americans’ opponent on the tournament’s opening day, thus establishing the matchup that’ll set their World Cup tone while, potentially, adding to a group already rich in emotion and narrative.
Wales, long overshadowed by England, is vying for its first World Cup berth in 64 years. But the Dragons’ recent return to the top tier of the global game, highlighted by a run to the Euro 2016 semis and a place in FIFA’s top 20, has been eclipsed by the sentiment fueling Ukraine’s qualification bid.
With its domestic season canceled following Russia’s February invasion and its national side dormant for six months (save a few unofficial exhibitions), Ukraine summoned the skill and will to dominate Scotland, 3-1, in Wednesday’s UEFA playoff. That semifinal, along with Sunday’s decider, had been postponed in March, forcing the World Cup draw in Doha to proceed with a placeholder. That placeholder was slotted into Group B alongside the U.S., England and Iran.
“Wales is a solid team. We played them before … and they were a difficult team. They were missing Gareth Bale in that game and a couple of other players, so that’s going to be a difficult game if Wales happens to go through,” U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter said following the draw, referring to a November 2020 friendly in Swansea that ended 0-0.
“If Ukraine makes it there, it’s a wonderful accomplishment,” Berhalter continued. “If the people of Ukraine can get some hope by their team playing in the World Cup, you know it’s amazing. And I think it will be more of a celebration in my eyes than political ramifications. I think you know we’re all pulling for Ukraine. We’re all behind them. We’re all supporting them and we hope that the [war] resolves as soon as possible.”
Ukraine’s qualification for the first time since 2006, and under the current taxing and tragic circumstances, would be a remarkable story and add significant intrigue to the build-up toward the opener in Al Rayyan. The young Americans have talent and confidence but lack World Cup pedigree (defenders DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are the only roster candidates with that experience). The World Cup stage is already new and imposing. A Nov. 21 match against Ukraine would attract even more attention and might even lead to a situation where the U.S. becomes the game-day foil for the nation the rest of the planet, and maybe much of the crowd, is supporting. That would be a compelling and challenging World Cup debut.
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For the U.S., it’s already going to be a tournament packed with story lines. Four days after the opener against Wales or Ukraine, the Americans will meet England in a Black Friday game between countries with vast cultural, historic and sporting connections. The group stage will then conclude on Nov. 29 in Doha, where the U.S. will face geopolitical rival Iran, the nation that sealed an embarrassing elimination from the 1998 World Cup in France.
On Sunday, either Wales and Bale, or Ukraine and all the trappings that come with it, will be added to the mix. And the result on opening day in Al Rayyan could prove critical. For two months, U.S. coaches, players and fans have been thinking about England and Iran. But the stakes in those games will be dictated in part by what happens Nov. 21. The Americans could enter the England match from a position of strength, or in desperation, depending on how they start. In the U.S.’s seven modern-era World Cups, when it has won or tied its opener, it advanced to the second round (1994, 2002, 2010 and 2014). When it lost, it went home after the group stage (1990, 1998, 2006).
“I think from a story perspective, I would love to see Ukraine make it. Obviously with everything going on, I know that they’re going to bring it in the playoff games,” U.S. midfielder Cristian Roldan said somewhat presciently this week in Cincinnati (before Ukraine beat the Scots).
“But I think each country has an individual story that is great, you know? Whether they’re playing against England, or Ukraine makes it. But for me, I just want to know who’s going to make it so that we can start preparing. For us, we know that Iran is going to be difficult—England, obviously. But to prepare for another game and maybe we can get a good friendly going that is the likes of the team that we’re facing, that would be honestly the best-case scenario.”
By the time the U.S. kicks off against Uruguay, its World Cup draw will finally be complete. Future friendlies against a European side are unlikely (UEFA teams are busy with Nations League matches during the last pre-World Cup international window in September). But as Roldan said, at least the planning can begin.
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