Unlike the World Cup in Russia four years ago, soccer fans in the United States will have a home team to root for.
For the first time since 2014, the U.S. Men’s National Team is back in the World Cup, and the squad will have its first game on Monday against Wales.
Here are five storylines to follow for the USMNT as it competes on the world’s biggest stage.
1. Can the U.S. score?
When the U.S. is not competing at home, it struggles to score.
Mightily, in fact.
In its last eight games not played on home soil, the Americans have scored a total of two goals.
In its last 10 games on the road, the U.S. has been shutout seven times, including in lackluster performances against Japan (2-0 loss) and Saudi Arabia (0-0 tie) during friendly games in September to prepare for the World Cup.
More than just not scoring, the U.S. in those games has barely looked threatening with an attack. That won’t cut it in Qatar.
2. Why should U.S. fans be optimistic?
Talent-wise, the U.S. might have more players on its roster who play on prominent club teams in Europe than during any past World Cup.
Players such as Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Weston McKennie (Juventus), Tyler Adams (Leeds), Brenden Aaronson (Leeds), Sergino Dest (AC Milan), Antonee Robinson (Fulham) and Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund) are just a few of the Americans playing in Europe.
There’s definitely talent, and there’s also plenty of youthful enthusiasm and speed. The average age of the U.S. squad is over 25 years old, with nine of those players being under 23 years old.
The U.S. is also in relatively good health. During the 14-game qualifying round, dynamic players Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie and Gio Reyna were never on the field at the same time due to injuries. All should be good to go for Qatar.
3. Why should U.S. fans be pessimistic?
In addition to the lack of goal scoring of late away from home, all the youth on the team — which in some ways could serve the U.S. well — could also be a big problem.
The only player on the roster who has played in a World Cup is defender DeAndre Yedlin.
During qualifying, many of the young players on the U.S. seemed to struggle to adapt to the intensity of that stage, but eventually did enough to finish third in the CONCACAF group to advance.
The top 3 teams, Canada, Mexico and U.S. automatically qualified, while fourth-place finisher Costa Rica won a 1-game playoff against New Zealand to advance.
4. What are chances the U.S. will advance out of group stage?
The last time the U.S. was in a World Cup in 2014, the Americans were put in what was dubbed as “The Group of Death,” with Germany, Portugal and Ghana.
However, the Americans still managed to advance out of that group by finishing second before losing to Belgium in the Round of 16.
The U.S. is not in a “Group of Death” this time around and advancing is doable, but it’s not like the other teams in the group are chopped liver, either.
England is the obvious favorite in the group, and that will be must-see TV when England and the U.S. clash on Black Friday.
Wales advanced through what is always a brutal stage of qualifying in Europe and features what’s been one of the world’s best strikers in the past decade, Gareth Bale.
Daniel James, Kieffer Moore and Harry Wilson are other world-class players for Wales.
As for Iran, it’s not a team to take lightly either. Iran is a mature, disciplined and organized team that has plenty of World Cup experience.
5. Is this World Cup more about the U.S. building for when it hosts in 2026?
Barring an incredible and unforeseen run to the quarterfinals or beyond, this will likely end up being the narrative for the Americans when they leave Qatar.
All the youth on the roster will get their first taste of World Cup action, and then will be fully in their primes four years from now when World Cup 2026 is held in the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The Americans have already qualified for the 2026 event as one of the hosts, so without question it was important to qualify this year in order to gain that springboard toward playing at home in four years.