For the first time in the competition’s almost one-hundred-year history, both Canada and the United States have qualified for the FIFA World Cup. It is a competition with several firsts – the first to take place in the Middle East and the first to take part in the Northern Hemisphere’s winter to name just two – so how likely is it we will see a side from North America progress through to the latter stages of the tournament?
Let’s face it, if either nation comes close to the final it will be one of the greatest underdog stories in the sport’s history but, this being sport, everyone can dream, and every country starts on day one of the tournament with the same number of points. Let’s look at the groups the two countries have been drawn in, their fixtures and their chances of getting through to the knockout stages.
USA – Group B
The USA have been drawn alongside top seeds England (ranked 5th in the world), Iran (ranked 23rd) and Wales (ranked 19th). To put those figures in perspective, Gregg Berhalter’s side are currently ranked 14th, which would suggest his side have more than a fighting chance of getting into the round of sixteen at least.
The top two from each group progress, and England will be heavy favorites to win Group B, being one of the fancied sides to go all the way after losing out on penalties in the final to Italy in last year’s European Championships. Gareth Southgate has a very strong, exciting side that is certainly capable of winning their country’s second World Cup. Recent poor performances, however, albeit in games which were always going to be used as experimental ones, will have dented the side’s confidence.
If the US are to qualify, it is against the two remaining sides where they are likely to need to pick up enough points, and neither should be overlooked. Iran will be used to the conditions in Qatar, will be motivated by their success the last time the two met at a World cup in France 1998, and were impressive in qualification. Wales were forced to qualify through the play-offs. Wales have been ranked a Pot 4 team, but in reality are closer to Pot 3, even Pot 2. In addition to that, any team that contains Gareth Bale needs to be given full respect.
Canada – Group F
It may be only the second time Canada have qualified for the biggest tournament in world sport, but they did it in style. John Herdman will not take his side to Qatar to merely make up the numbers. He’ll be looking to make history by getting Canada out of the group stages for the first time. They will have their work cut out, however, having been drawn against two very good European sides in Group F.
Belgium are currently ranked 2nd in the world. This is very likely to be the last chance for their “Golden Generation” to win the silverware to go along with their ranking. Despite being ranked as the best in the world for a number of recent tournaments, they have failed to produce the performances or results on the day. Belgium may not be the force they were even two years ago, but you only have to look at some of the names they have in their team to realize they will be in with a shot for at least a semi-final place.
Croatia reached the final last time out in Russia, and will be hoping to go one better though, like Belgium, they are showing all the signs of a team on the wane. Their ranking of 15th looks harsh, and they will look at the group as one they could and should progress from. Morocco (ranked 22nd) are the wildcard of the group. They looked good in qualification, but their recent 3-0 defeat at the hands of the USA is telling. Canada are ranked 43rd in the world, so will be seen as underdogs, something that will not concern them and could very well play into their hands.