DOHA, Qatar — Ever since 2022 World Cup Group B took shape with a glittering draw here in Doha on April 1, there has been a tentative assumption, derived from the history and profile of this group, that four points might be enough.
The United States could, it was thought, draw with Wales, lose respectably to England, beat Iran and advance.
Similar results, after all, have propelled the USMNT to the knockout stages of the World Cup in the past. Win-loss-draw was the formula in 2002 and 2010. With England such clear favorites to top their group in 2022, the Americans, it seems, just needed to avoid a heavy defeat Black Friday (2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo) and they’d be fine.
But that is certainly not how they are approaching a showdown with implications that may transcend this World Cup. And it was always an incorrect assumption in the first place.
The first day went as planned. England destroyed Iran. The USMNT and Wales finished tied. And the expectations for the second day remain intact. England are -175 favorites to beat the United States
The four point theory, however, falls apart when you unpack the various scenarios and incentives that lie in wait.
How it could all collapse
The particularly relevant scenario – and the most likely, according to the bookmakers – is that England beat the United States and Wales beat Iran. On the one hand, it would leave the Iranians eliminated, with nothing to play with when they meet the United States next Tuesday. And, in theory, it would allow the United States to beat Iran and take second place on goal differential, assuming England take care of Wales.
But more importantly, it would make that assumption dangerous, because it would leave England and Wales with aligned incentives.
England would top the group with a draw. Wales would advance with a draw. Neither would collude to produce a draw, of course, but each would have an incentive to do so do not lose rather than win. Only competitive integrity and rivalry within Britain would compel them to attack. Both factors would fade away, and pragmatism would replace them, as the game went on.
The USMNT, therefore, losing to England, regardless of score, would leave themselves susceptible to the draft and, more generally, the pool sequence. They would go into the final day needing help elsewhere, with the fate of the World Cup slipping out of hand.
USMNT entrenchment interests in Wales-Iran
Wales and Iran get underway nine hours ahead of the US and England on Friday, and the ideal outcome there, for American interests, is a draw.
It would leave Wales on two points and Iran on one, and actually open up the possibility that Two the points – via a slight defeat to England and a draw with Iran – would be enough.
In the Wales-Iran draw scenario, England would clinch top spot in Group B with a win over the United States, and while they could then rest their stars against Wales on Decision Day, their still very talented reserves could play freely without losing anything.
And of course, in this scenario, a US victory over Iran would most likely be enough.
But playing outside these scenarios underestimates the randomness of the sport, and especially this tournament. He also underrates Iran, who, yes, have conceded six goals to England, but haven’t played as badly as the score suggests.
There is every chance that Iran beat Wales on Friday, in which case there would be little difference between a USMNT draw and a loss to England. Either way, they should have beaten Iran in the final day. And that, for a US team struggling to create quality chances against tightly packed defenses, could be much more difficult than many realize.
The moral of this story, then, is twofold but multilayered.
Firstly, the Wales-Iran outcome will determine the relative values of the various possible outcomes for the United States against England.
And second, the United States shouldn’t worry too much about goal difference. Yes, it could come into play; but no, it’s not worth more than points. The US should be chasing a draw (if Wales beat or draw Iran) or a win (if Iran beat Wales) rather than revert to damage limitation.