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What success in the World Cup looks like for the USMNT

It looks like winning... but also losing, but only under certain conditions

SOCCER: AUG 01 Concacaf Gold Cup Final - Team v Team Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Here’s a trivia question that will win you strange looks from people who don’t follow soccer for knowing: how many games has the USMNT won in the World Cup since 1990? Here’s another one: Since 1990 what is the most wins the USMNT has in a single World Cup?

The answers are... five and two. In fact, The USMNT has played 26 World Cup matches, won five, drew six and lost 15. It’s... not a lot of wins and in three of the World Cups the USA has participated in, it come back with zero wins. Arguably, this is terrible... but, somehow really, really good?

The highest highs for the team have been qualifying for the 1990 World Cup, making it to the knockout rounds as host in 1994, and reaching the quinto partido in 2002. Then there is the lowest low of the unmitigated disaster of 1998 and moral victory of salvaging a draw against Italy with nine men for 43 minutes but otherwise underperforming in 2006. 2010 and 2014 saw the team manage to emerge from their group only to play valiantly but ultimately fall short in the Round of 16.

In 2022 the USA will feature its most talented but, aside from the 1990 squad, least experienced and youngest side in a World Cup. Yet, it’s fair to have high expectations for the squad. The team won a Gold Cup and Nations League in 2021 but hasn’t faced the stiff competition it will in the group of the World Cup. England finished 4th in the World Cup in 2018 and were runners-up in the 2020 (2021) Euros. Wales has been competitive in World Cup qualification but hasn’t qualified since 1958 while they recently reached the Round of 16 in the Euros after reaching the semis in 2016. Iran is generally considered one of the most competitive teams in Asia and recently reached the semis of the AFC Asian Cup but in the last two World Cups failed to get out of the group going 1-2-3 combined.

We all know what we want to see: Christian Pulisic actually smiling, Gregg Berhalter giving a post game interview talking about dominating the game that’s entirely accurate, and Aaron Long dancing to Post Malone while hoisting a World Cup Trophy with his teammates... Will we see it? If not is the World Cup a success? If yes, how so?

Warning: there are shoulds ahead, never should on yourself

Failure: It’s fair to say not getting out of the group is a failure. This team is as good or better than Wales and Iran and, in theory, can give England some trouble. Fighting with valor but falling short, dominating possession but not scoring in three games, losing two and drawing one but having the system work... not good enough. That’s a failure. The USMNT is not going to the World Cup aiming to achieve moral victories. It should get out of the group.

Meeting expectations: Is getting out of the group alone enough? The USA won’t be favorites to win it. Getting out is meeting expectations, winning the group, unexpected bonus. Some fans might find this frightening, but does getting to the knockout mean Gregg Berhalter will stick around for 2026?

Things get murky: After the group there are a lot of ifs and thens and unexpecteds and unknowable unknowables. The USA would be lined up to play the Netherlands, Senegal, Ecuador or Qatar. The most likely scenario is the Netherlands or Senegal, but Ecuador qualified out of South America which is really hard to do and Qatar is hosting and they’re hosting because of what seems like unethical practices and who knows what kind of result they might get as hosts given how Russia performed in 2018.

Success: What does it look like in the Round of 16? Does it depend on the opponent? Is a performance like against Belgium but falling short successful? Would the USA take that against Holland and be happy with it? What about a winnable game - Senegal, Qatar, and Ecuador are all challenging teams but the USA can beat those teams and arguably should beat Ecuador and Qatar. Is getting knocked out in an evenly matched game like against Ghana in 2010 a success? This is a weird one. Winning would be a success, beating Holland would be a massive success. Some fans might find this frightening, but does getting to the quarters mean Gregg Berhalter deserves to stick around for 2026?

Successful-Failure: On the flip side, is losing to any opponent in the first knockout round a successful-failure? Is outright failure losing by multiple goals? Does that erase getting out of the group? Does the opponent dictate judging this one?

Great Success: Making it to the quinto partido. Without getting into the weeds of potential opponents, this would both feel and be pretty good. It would mean that the Americans had probably, unless there was some really unprecedented results, won two games and matched their best ever showing in a World Cup.

Massive Success: Winning a Round of 16 game and reaching the quarter finals is a good standard for being a team that deserves to be in the conversation of being pretty good on the international stage. There’s no argument that the USA would be exceeding expectations and at this point would be making noise with the big teams reaching this point.

Dreamland: Getting to a semi-final would be elating. Think of how that would feel watching that game. Every touch would send the electricity in your body into overdrive like when Landon Donovan scored the winner against Algeria in 2010. You wouldn’t even mind hearing the “I believe” chant for 90 or 120 minutes, you’d never want that feeling to end.

Realizing Jurgen Klinsmann’s ambition: We know what it looks like, a 3rd place game! What fun, an exhibition - sorta. Mockery aside, this would be a tremendous result also and if anyone offered a fan a shot at 3rd in the World Cup they’d grumble a bit and then take it.

Beyond your wildest dreams: A chance to win the World Cup. Just imagine the USMNT having a shot at being the best team in the world at men’s soccer. It’d be like Christmas in December.