Two thousand eight hundred and twenty-nine days after the U.S. men’s soccer team played its last World Cup game, it qualified for the 2022 edition of the planet’s preeminent sporting event.
With a 5-1 thrashing of Panama on Sunday and then a 2-0 loss in Costa Rica on Wednesday, the USMNT — the team’s popular acronym — clinched one of 32 places at this year’s tournament, and unleashed months of excitement that American fans so dearly missed in 2018.
The 2022 World Cup, though, will be unlike any other men's World Cup. It won’t be the nationwide summer celebration of soccer that used to arrive every four years.
Here’s everything you need to know about it — and about the U.S. team that will participate.
When and where is the World Cup?
The 2022 World Cup begins Nov. 21 in Qatar, a peninsular emirate on the Persian gulf where summer temperatures often top 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
To avoid hazardous heat, FIFA, global soccer’s governing body, decided in 2015 to move the tournament out of its traditional summer window and to the cusp of winter. It will interrupt European club soccer seasons, rather than fall during their offseasons, as it had since its inception in 1930. No previous men’s World Cup ended later than July 30.
Why is the World Cup in Qatar? And what will it be like?
Qatar won a sensationally shady bid for hosting rights way back in 2010. Years later, with many suspecting corruption, American investigator Michael Garcia produced a 430-page report that did not offer proof that Qatar had essentially bought the World Cup, but did detail loads of questionable behavior. Various high-ranking soccer officials who took part in the 2010 vote have since been banned from the sport or indicted by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The Qatar World Cup has provoked ethical and logistical concerns. Human rights groups have highlighted the gulf state’s systemic exploitation and mistreatment of migrant workers, thousands of whom have helped build World Cup stadiums and infrastructure from scratch. Fans worry about everything from LGBTQ+ rights and women’s rights in the host country to its hotel shortage. FIFA has known all along that Qatar, whose size would make it the 49th-biggest U.S. state, could be too small to host the world’s grandest single-sport tournament.
But organizers have never wavered. Foreign fans, including thousands of Americans, are still buying tickets. And the geographically condensed nature of the tournament will have its benefits: All eight stadiums are within 40 miles and 50-minute drives of one another, in and around Doha, the Qatari capital.
Who has qualified?
Twenty-nine of the 32 spots are accounted for. The qualified teams are (sorted by confederation and listed best-to-worst):
SOUTH AMERICA: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Ecuador
EUROPE: France, Germany, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, England, Netherlands, Denmark, Croatia, Switzerland, Poland, Serbia
AFRICA: Senegal, Morocco, Cameroon, Tunisia, Ghana
NORTH/CENTRAL AMERICA: U.S., Mexico, Canada
ASIA: Iran, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, Qatar (hosts)
The final three berths are up for grabs in playoffs in June. Costa Rica will face New Zealand for one of the three. Australia will play the United Arab Emirates for the right to take on (and probably lose to) Peru for another spot.
The third will go to either Wales, Scotland or Ukraine. The Ukraine-Scotland playoff semifinal was postponed from March until June because of the war. The semifinal winner will meet Wales a few days later for a win-and-in playoff final.
Did any big names fail to qualify?
Italy, shockingly, lost to North Macedonia and failed to qualify for a second straight men’s World Cup. Colombia, Chile, Nigeria and Egypt will also be absent. Sweden was the next-best European team to miss out. Russia was banned after its invasion of Ukraine.
Among players, Egypt’s Mo Salah and Norway’s Erling Haaland are the biggest stars who won’t be present.
When is the draw, and who are the USMNT’s likely opponents?
The U.S. will learn its group stage opponents at the World Cup draw, which takes place this Friday, April 1 in Qatar. The listed start time is noon ET (FS1, Telemundo). The actual drawing of the 32 teams into eight groups will likely happen closer to 12:30 or 1 p.m.
The U.S. will be seeded in Pot 2 out of 4, meaning it will match up with one top seed, and one team each from Pots 3 and 4. The pots, which will be based on the FIFA rankings released Thursday, will be as follows:
POT 1: Qatar, Brazil, Belgium, France, Argentina, England, Spain, Portugal
POT 2: Netherlands, Mexico, U.S., Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Uruguay, Croatia
POT 3: Senegal, Japan, Iran, Serbia, Morocco, South Korea, Poland, Tunisia
POT 4: Canada, Cameroon, Ecuador, Saudi Arabia, Ghana, Peru/Australia/UAE, Costa Rica/New Zealand, Wales/Scotland/Ukraine
The simple analysis goes like this:
Qatar is the prize from Pot 1. It is seeded as the host, not as a top-eight team in the world. Its group will almost certainly end up being the weakest.
Non-European teams cannot draw nations from their own confederation — meaning the U.S. won’t get Canada or the Costa Rica-New Zealand playoff winner from Pot 4. This also means, for example, that if it gets South Korea from Pot 3, it cannot get Saudi Arabia from Pot 4.
The USMNT’s dream draw is Qatar-Tunisia-Wales/Scotland/Ukraine (or Ecuador from Pot 4).
The USMNT’s dream draw that doesn’t include Qatar is Spain/Portugal-Tunisia-Saudi Arabia or Spain/Portugal-South Korea-Ghana.
The USMNT’s nightmare draw is either Brazil-Serbia-Wales/Scotland/Ukraine or France-Serbia-Peru.
FIFA released the official procedures for the draw last week, if you’d like to climb into the weeds.
How (and at what time) will fans in the U.S. watch games?
Fox and Telemundo have TV and digital streaming rights in the U.S.
Beginning Nov. 21 and ending Nov. 28, throughout the first two rounds of the group stage, there will be four games per day in four standalone windows, at 1 p.m., 4, 7 and 10 Qatar time — which is 5 a.m., 8, 11 and 2 p.m. ET. (The U.S. east coast is eight hours behind Qatar in the fall and winter.)
The final group matches, the Round of 16 and the quarterfinals will kick off at either 11 a.m. ET or 2 p.m. ET. The semifinals are at 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, Dec. 13 and Wednesday, Dec. 14. The final is at 11 a.m. ET on Sunday, Dec. 18. (The full pre-draw schedule is here.)
Group stage kickoff times will be assigned after the draw. FIFA typically tries to accommodate major markets and maximize TV viewership at home, so unless the USMNT draws Japan or Korea, its games will likely start at 11 a.m. or 2 p.m. ET, not 5 a.m. or 8.
If work will interfere with your weekday viewing, take solace in this: One of the first two U.S. games will take place on either Thanksgiving (Groups G and H), Black Friday (Groups A and B) or that weekend (Groups C, D, E and F).
What’s changed since the USMNT failed to qualify in 2018?
A lot. The rosters that opened the 2022 cycle and clinched qualification for the U.S. featured just four players from the team that lost in Trinidad on Oct. 10, 2017. The player pool has gotten younger and more talented. The team culture has improved significantly under head coach Gregg Berhalter, who was hired in December 2018. There’s also a new general manager — former USMNT striker Brian McBride — and a new sporting director — former USMNT striker Earnie Stewart. And above them, there’s a new CEO (Will Wilson) and president (former USWNT midfielder Cindy Parlow Cone).
The changes came slowly, in stages, but were ultimately sweeping, and this USMNT will look nothing like the one that failed to qualify five years ago.
Could the U.S. win the World Cup?
Realistically, probably not. Theoretically, there’s a slim chance.
The more reasonable statement would be that the Americans are semifinal dark horses — in large part because they’re so young. This past summer, when they beat Mexico in a manic Nations League final, and then again at the Gold Cup two months later, they were the youngest team in program history, and the youngest national team in the world. Their best players — Christian Pulisic (23), Tyler Adams (23), Weston McKennie (23), Sergiño Dest (21), Brenden Aaronson (21), Gio Reyna (19), Yunus Musah (19), Ricardo Pepi (23) — are all youthful and still growing.
Who are the favorites?
The true contenders remain several steps ahead of the U.S. The favorites, per BetMGM, are:
1. Brazil (+550)
2. France (+550)
3. England (+700)
4. Spain (+750)
5. Germany (+900)
6. Argentina (+1000)
7. Belgium (+1000)
8. Portugal (+1000)
Brazil and Argentina are the best bets at those odds. Both ran through South Ameria’s qualifying gauntlet undefeated.
Who’ll be on the USMNT’s World Cup roster?
Eight months out, there appear to be roughly 13 near-locks for the U.S. squad, assuming health — especially with rosters potentially expanding from 23 to 26. Here’s our projection:
(Roster bubble players in italics)
GOALKEEPERS: Zack Steffen, Matt Turner, Ethan Horvath
FULLBACKS: Sergiño Dest, Antonee Robinson, DeAndre Yedlin, Joe Scally
CENTER BACKS: Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson, Chris Richards, Aaron Long
MIDFIELDERS: Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, Yunus Musah, Luca de la Torre, Gianluca Busio, Kellyn Acosta
WINGERS/ATTACKING MIDFIELDERS: Christian Pulisic, Brenden Aaronson, Gio Reyna, Tim Weah, Paul Arriola
STRIKERS: Ricardo Pepi, Jesus Ferreira, Josh Sargent, Jordan Pefok
ALSO CONSIDERED: Sean Johnson (GK), John Brooks (CB), Tim Ream (CB/LB), Reggie Cannon (RB), George Bello (LB), James Sands (CB/CM), Christian Roldan (CM/everywhere), Sebastian Lletget (CM/AM), Jordan Morris (W), Caden Clark (W/AM), Gyasi Zardes (ST)
When will rosters be decided?
Likely in early November. FIFA hasn’t yet set a roster deadline, but in 2018, it was 10 days before the first match. (Preliminary rosters of 35 players were due a month in advance, but those don’t usually reveal much.)
European clubs, however, will play matches on the weekend of Sunday, Nov. 13, and won’t be required to release players to their national teams until Monday, Nov. 14, which will complicate and condense preparations. Berhalter will likely name a squad, convene a group of the squad’s MLS-based players and others in the U.S., then travel to Europe and eventually Qatar to meet up with the European-based players.
If one of them gets injured after being named to the roster, he can be replaced “up until 24 hours before the start of his team’s first match,” per tournament regulations.
Typically, all of this would happen in May and June. There’d be an extended stateside training camp, sendoff friendlies, media extravaganzas and more. None of that will be possible ahead of Qatar.