All-American Underdogs: the USMNT’s FIFA World Cup Campaign

“I think we’ve shown that we can be giants eventually. We may not be there yet, but we’re definitely on our way.” – Weston McKennie


In 2018, the USMNT lost to Trinidad and Tobago, crushing the dreams of veterans like Tim Howard (GK). But all hope was not lost because players like Attacking Midfielder Christian Pulisic’s (who was 18 at the time) dreams seemed to be beginning to take shape. After a four-year hiatus on the world’s largest football stage, the United States Men’s National Team returned to compete in the FIFA World Cup after failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. 

As strong competitors in their confederation (CONCACAF), the USMNT secured their spot for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar. The team was placed in Group B alongside countries like England, Wales, and Iran. While the United States might be number one in the world for other political or economic reasons, being number one in association football is not one of them. Walking into the World Cup, the USMNT cemented themselves as “underdogs” due to the fact in the Worldwide FIFA rankings the team ranked #16. But these daunting numbers did not illustrate the insane amount of talent on the team. For a young team, the USMNT hosted an impressive roster of players including Chelsea player Christian Pulisic (10), Leeds United players Tyler Adams (4) and Brenden Aaronson (11), Arsenal goalie Matt Turner (1). 

Even though their first game was a draw against Wales, the USMNT sure made a splash on the international stage. On November 21, U.S. Striker Timothy Weah scored the USMNT’s  first World Cup goal at the 36’ mark. Even though the goal was meaningful to the football community in the states, it was historic in its own right. Weah was the first player to score against Wales since Brazilian player Pele in 1958. The USMNT continued to dominate in the first half against Wales, but unfortunately, Wales fought back resulting in a 1-1 draw between the two teams. 

The next showdown the Stars and Stripes faced was against England on Black Friday. Anytime the United States goes against England, best believe the memes will come out of the woodwork. With social media plastered “IT’S CALLED SOCCER” and “LET FREEDOM RING”, the world was ready to see the greatest showdown between the U.S. and England since the Revolutionary War. The game had its nail-biting moments, where spectators were on the edge of their seats. The USMNT had several chances, which all fell too short including Christian Pulisic nearly scoring a goal, which was deflected by the crossbar. While the nil-nil tie may have seemed disappointing; the result had its good news. The USMNT team secured its spot as one of the undefeated nations in the FIFA World Cup. But in order to advance into the first knockout round (Round of 16), The USMNT would need to win against Iran in order to guarantee a spot in the Round of 16 against the Netherlands. 

Even before the USMNT played against Iran, pre-game tensions were running high. The U.S. Soccer Federation posted a Group B breakdown grid on their official Instagram page, which resulted in public backlash because of the removal of the regime’s emblem on the Iranian flag. The U.S. attempted to show solidarity with Iranian protests, which resulted in the Iranian regime rallying support to kick the U.S. football team out of the FIFA tournament. Additionally, U.S. captain Tyler Adams was asked a series of “gotcha” questions by Iranian journalists at a training presser before the game. But the drama stayed off the pitch, as the USMNT team brought their full effort in this unofficial knockout game in the group stage against Iran. At the 38’ mark, Striker Christian Pulisic scored the first goal since Weah’s with an assist from Sergiño Dest. Unfortunately, Pulisic collided with Beiranvand (Iranian goalie), resulting in an injury. Pulisic was replaced by midfielder Brenden Aarson as Pulisic was no longer able to play due to the injury that was later diagnosed as a pelvic contusion. The USMNT secured their place in the Round of 16 against the Group A winner, the Netherlands. 

Going against the Netherlands proved difficult as the USMNT’s defense seemed to crumble within minutes of the first half. Memphis Depay scored in the first ten minutes of the game; at the end of the first half, Daley Blind scored against the Americans at the 45’ with stoppage time mark. It seemed all was lost in the second half, but Haji Wright seemed to dissuade people’s fears and keep the hope alive that the United States could advance. Wright scored with an assist from Pulisic at the 76’ creating a difference of one in 2-1 score. But as the saying goes, “it’s the hope that kills you”. The Netherlands retaliated at the 81’ mark with Denzel Dumfries scoring against Turner. Thus, the dream of advancing to the quarterfinals disappeared all too soon. The game resulted in bittersweet moments between the players. Fans gave the USMNT a farewell “USA” chant. Players in the post-game pressers took a moment to thank the fans for their support. Pulisic with a heavy heart said, “We’re sorry. We wanted it so bad, and I hope we gave you some kind of excitement and showed you what this country is about, what this team is about…Just thank you guys.” 

But football is not completely gone from us, some players return to their regular clubs for training, while others continue to compete for the USMNT for the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer. Additionally, exciting news is on the horizon with the United States hosting the Copa América tournament in 2024 and the FIFA World Cup in 2026. Furthermore, familiar faces will be able to return in the next World Cup as many of the players will be in peak 24-28 age range for professional football.