How can the USMNT advance at the World Cup?

After two games at the World Cup, the U.S. men’s national team hasn’t lost, and as such has kept themselves in the frame to advance from Group B.

Sure, it feels like they left points on the board against both Wales and England, but by not losing, the door is still wide open for the USMNT to get into the knockout stage, which is an altogether pretty good scenario. However, it comes with pressure: the USMNT’s match against Iran is effectively a one-game playoff to get into the Round of 16.

First, let’s settle the terms here: there’s no scenario in which two points is enough to get out of a four-team group in the round-robin format used at the World Cup. That means a loss to Iran ends the USMNT’s tournament.

This young U.S. team also heads home early if they get a draw. They’d be undefeated, but ending the group on three points would leave them stuck behind England, who have already collected four, and Iran (who would get their fourth point by securing a tie against the USMNT).

As such, there’s only one way through: a win. Anything less and USMNT fans will be ruing the thickness of the Al Bayt Stadium crossbar that Christian Pulisic’s shot thwacked against in the first half against England, or wondering what might have been had Walker Zimmerman kept his feet against Wales. So it goes at the World Cup.

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As such, all the scenarios below depend on the United States winning on Tuesday.

USMNT wins Group B

With five points, there’s only one way the USMNT can win Group B: a Welsh upset of England.

That outcome would see the USMNT on five points, and Iran on three. Wales would go from one to four points, level with England. Given that the Three Lions have a six-goal edge in terms of goal difference (the first tiebreaker), it would take a very substantial Wales win for Gareth Bale and co. to advance.

However, that would be a problem for them and England to hash out. If Wales wins 17-0, or 1-0, or 100-99, Group B would still end with the USMNT in first place.

England wins Group B, USMNT finishes second

The USMNT is on five points, but this time they’re in second. That’s fine, they still got out of the group stage! That’s meeting the standard fans and the federation have seemed to more or less agree is right for this World Cup.

Here’s how it happens: while the USMNT is taking the three points against Iran, about 16 miles to the east, England is doing the same against Wales.

That would see the group close with the following table:

England – 7 pointsUSMNT – 5 pointsIran – 3 pointsWales – 1 point

England, USMNT need tiebreakers to sort top two places in Group B

It is possible that tiebreakers end up determining who faces the winner from Group A, and who gets the runner-up.

Is this a good place to note that facing the winner of Group A means going into the portion of the knockout round bracket that could contain Argentina, Brazil, and one of Germany or Spain? And that winning the group seems at this point to come with the prize of an easier path to the final?

That scenario would require England and Wales to end up tying in Doha, leaving the Three Lions level with the USMNT on five points. Iran would be third on three, and Wales would head home with two.

It would also lock England into a plus-four goal difference, which is where things get interesting. The USMNT would need to steamroll Iran to overcome that deficit, either a) producing a margin of victory of five or higher, or b) scoring six or more goals in a four-goal win. You know, really normal stuff.

A goal difference tiebreaker here is pretty unlikely, but even if the USMNT manages a 4-0 scoreline against Iran, it won’t be enough. The next tiebreaker is total goals scored, and England will enter the final matchday in the group with six. The U.S., with just one goal, would need their hypothetical four-goal win to come in a game in which they scored five or more goals.

So realistically, a USMNT win and an England-Wales draw probably means second place for Gregg Berhalter’s side.

However, just for fun, let’s dig into the weirdness: the results see both teams finish on five points. The USMNT wins 6-2, just like England did against Iran, while England and Wales finishes up in a 1-1 draw. Points, goal difference, and goals scored are all level. Now what?

Head-to-head points, head-to-head goal difference, and head-to-head total goals scored are next, and since the United States and England played to a 0-0 draw, the tie remains unbroken. In that case, FIFA’s next move is to look at fair play points, which come in the form of deductions for yellow cards and red cards picked up by a given team.

After two games, England has not received a single booking of any kind, so they’re safely ahead of the USMNT, who have collectively received four yellow cards. So even in this wacky scenario where the USMNT and England are level on all of the scoreline-based outcomes, England still wins the group as long as they don’t have four players get booked, or one player receive a double-yellow and another receive just one yellow, or have one player given a straight red.

So, the summarized version is that if England and Wales draw while the USMNT wins, the latter has to be a big, big win, and it would help if England has some kind of crazy meltdown that their referee on the day takes exception to.

Finally, let’s say England does accumulate the right number of fair play demerits to end up level with the USMNT. We go to a drawing of lots, though per a BBC report in 2018, what that would actually mean involves no lots at all. Instead, at least for the last World Cup, the plan would be for a member of the World Cup organizing committee with no connection to the Unites States or England would draw balls from a pot, not dissimilar to how the group stage draw was conducted, with the balls containing a number one and a number two.

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