Everyone remembers that night in Trinidad five years ago. The night when the USMNT capitulated. After a heroic, albeit losing, effort in the last sixteen against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup, soccer looked like it would become one of the US’ most popular sports. Three years on from that heartbreaking night in Salvador, they needed just one point away at lowly Trinidad & Tobago – who had lost eight of their nine games during the fifth round of CONCACAF qualifying – to seal a place at Russia 2018. Out of nowhere, they found themselves two goals down after just 37 minutes. Christian Pulišić pulled one back in the second half, but it wasn’t enough to spare the US’ blushes, losing 2-1 and as such, finishing fifth out of six in the group, giving Panama, ranked 63rd in the world, their first-ever invite to football’s biggest party. The result was the lowest point in the 109-year history of United States soccer.
In hindsight, missing the trip to Russia in 2018 may have been for the best. It forced them to look toward the future. Out went the now 70-year-old Bruce Arena and in came one of the MLS’ most impressive young Head Coaches’, Gregg Berhalter. His immediate objectives were blooding a new crop of young players into the national team set-up. The likes of Juventus’ Weston McKennie, Borussia Dortmund’s Gio Reyna and RB Leipzig’s Tyler Adams all needed to come to the fore. He also made the decision to make Chelsea’s Christian Pulišić his captain. And how his decisions have been rewarded. He won his country to their 7th Gold Cup and led them back to the World Cup at the first time of asking.
This winter, the US are back on the grandest stage after an eight-year wait, and once again, they will have to face England. Despite the huge amount of fixtures played in the English footballing calendar, The Three Lions still managed to reach the semifinals in Russia. They went one better in last summer’s European Championships, losing out to Italy in the final. They do look like stern opposition, but in South Africa 12 years ago, Clint Dempsey’s equaliser gave the US a hard-earned draw against them, which sent his nation to the top of Group C ahead of the English.
The other sides in the group are Iran and Wales – who managed to narrowly scrape past Ukraine in the European playoff. If the memories of games against England are positive, thoughts of previous meetings with Iran are less so. Back at France ‘98, Iran ran out 2-1 winners in what was, and still is, known as the most politically charged game in the history of the World Cup. The two countries still have their differences 24 years on, but on a purely sporting level, the US will be hoping to gain a measure of revenge for that defeat in Lyon.
Wales are somewhat of an X-Factor. Despite impressing en route to reaching the semifinals of Euro 2016, this is the first time that they have qualified for a World Cup in over 60 years. They are also a team in transition, with a lot of young talent coming through their ranks, They are spearheaded by the one and only Gareth Bale. The 5-time Champions League winner isn’t the marauding winger that he used to be, but at 32 years of age, he is still capable of the spectacular, and Barcelona fullback Sergiño Dest will have to be at his very best to contain the former Real Madrid man.
Expectations should be high for the USMNT, and qualifying for the second round – just as they did eight years ago in Brazil – should be the minimum expectation. If they can manage that, their probable opponents would be either the Netherlands – who disappointed at Euro 2020 – or Senegal, the current champions of Africa. Both sides are beatable on paper, and if the USMNT were to do that, they would equal their greatest ever World Cup finish, a million miles away from that night in Trinidad.