Why a respectable loss to England would do the USMNT no good in World Cup Group B

DOHA, Qatar — Ever since April 1, when the 2022 World Cup’s Group B took shape at a glitzy draw here in Doha, there has been a tentative assumption, derived from history and the contour of this group, that four points might be sufficient.

The U.S. could, the thinking went, draw with Wales, lose respectably to England, beat Iran and advance.

Similar outputs, after all, have taken the USMNT to World Cup knockout stages in the past. Win-loss-draw was the formula in 2002 and 2010. With England so clearly favored to top the group in 2022, the Americans, it seemed, just had to avoid a heavy defeat on Black Friday (2 p.m. ET, Fox/Telemundo) and they’d be fine.

But that certainly isn’t how they’re approaching a showdown with implications that could transcend this World Cup. And it was always a faulty assumption in the first place.

Matchday 1 went according to the assumption. England smashed Iran. The USMNT and Wales ended level. And Matchday 2 expectations remain intact. England is a -175 favorite to beat the U.S.

The four-point theory crumbles, though, when you unpack the various scenarios and the incentives that lie in wait.

Christian Pulisic of USA during the World Cup match between USA vs Wales at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium on November 21, 2022 in Al Rayyan Qatar (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)

How it could all break down

The particularly relevant scenario — and the most likely one, according to bookmakers — is that England beats the U.S. and Wales beats Iran. It would, on one hand, leave the Iranians eliminated, with nothing to play for when they meet the U.S. next Tuesday. And it would, in theory, allow the U.S. to beat Iran and take second place on goal differential, assuming England takes care of Wales.

But more importantly, it would make that assumption dangerous, because it’d 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 manufacture a draw, of course, but each would be incentivized to not lose rather than to win. Only competitive integrity and intra-Britain rivalry would compel them to attack. Both factors would wane, and pragmatism would replace them, as the game wore on.

The USMNT would, therefore, by losing to England, no matter the scoreline, leave themselves susceptible to fishiness and, more generally, to the sequence of the group. They’d go into the final matchday needing help from elsewhere, with their World Cup fate having slipped from their own hands.

USMNT rooting interests in Wales-Iran

Wales and Iran will kick off nine hours before the U.S. and England on Friday, and the ideal result 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 points — via a slender loss to England and a score draw with Iran — would be sufficient.

In the Wales-Iran draw scenario, England would clinch the top spot in Group B with a win over the U.S., and while it might then rest stars versus Wales on Decision Day, its still-very-talented reserves could play freely, with nothing to lose.

And of course, in this scenario, a U.S. win over Iran would very likely be enough.

But the gaming out of these scenarios underestimates the randomness of this sport, and particularly this tournament. It also underestimates Iran, who, yes, conceded six goals to England, but did not play nearly as poorly as the scoreline suggests.

There is every chance that Iran beats Wales on Friday, in which case there’d be very little difference between a USMNT draw and loss against England. Either way, they’d have to beat Iran on the final day. And that, for a U.S. team that struggles to create quality chances against tightly packed defenses, could be far more difficult than many realize.

The moral of this story, then, is twofold but layered.

First, the Wales-Iran result will determine the relative values of the various possible outcomes for the U.S. against England.

And second, the U.S. should not overly concern itself with goal differential. Yes, it could come into play; but no, it isn’t more valuable than points. The U.S. should chase a draw (if Wales beats or ties Iran) or a win (if Iran beats Wales) rather than revert to damage-limitation.