What can we expect from the Unites States men's national team as the World Cup gets underway? Former ESPN senior researcher Paul Carr, now Senior Director of Content for TruMedia and covering his fourth men's World Cup, ESPN FC host Dan Thomas and ESPN broadcaster and analyst Dalen Cuff offer their tips and betting suggestions for the United States' first match and what to expect from them in the tournament overall.
Let's start at the start, with the USA's opening contest against Wales, where the line for Sam's Army to win is +160 and to win with both teams to score is +550. Do you like Gregg Berhalter's charges to open the tournament strong or do you expect disappointment out of the gate?
Dalen Cuff: Hard to not have bias leak in here. Both teams know how critical this game is given how this group sets up. Since 1998 when the tourney went to 32 teams, 84% of teams that win their opener get out of the group. Wales are not a dynamic attacking team despite the inclusion of an aged Gareth Bale and a lot of balls in the box looking for the head of big Kieffer Moore. While the U.S. has great young attacking talent, it hasn't clicked in recent months. They're also the youngest team in the tourney, and with the nerves associated with that, I don't know what we are going to see. I think this match is low scoring, but under 2.5 has no value at -205. I've contemplated the emotional hedge with Wales Draw No Bet +105. But I'm going all in, Yanks to win +160.
Dan Thomas: I think this tournament is going to be a struggle for the USMNT. I just don't trust them to perform at this sort of level. I think the disappointment will start with the opener. I think it will be a tough watch -- and 0-0 score.
Paul Carr: Both teams often struggle to score, but as Dalen said, under 2.5 has no value at -205. I lean toward the U.S., because I think they have more dangerous attackers, and even though Wales defends resolutely, they still allowed 1.2 expected goals per game in qualifying. My play is U.S. Draw No Bet at -135, and I don't mind under 1.5 at +145 either.
With odds at +10000, to think the Americans will be able to win the whole tournament is a long shot, however winning Group B is a little more in the realm of potential reality with odds at +550. What do you think? Can they win a group with England in it again, like they did in 2010, or is qualifying for the knockout round (-120) the best they can hope for?
Carr: In a small tournament, +550 on the (maybe) second-best team to win a group is a decent price. As 2010 showed, one break or bounce will turn a group on its head. I don't think -120 is a great price on the U.S. to advance. If we assume for simplicity that England always advances, I don't think the U.S. also advances well over half the time. The difference between the U.S. and Wales and even Iran isn't that great. The only group play I like here is Iran to advance at +333. On the field, Iran has a strong defense that allowed five goals in 16 qualifiers and perhaps the group's best non-English forward in Porto's Mehdi Taremi. The gap between Iran's price and the U.S./Wales prices just shouldn't be that big.
Cuff: To bet on winning it all is a waste of money. A quarterfinal run would be impressive and a huge success. But I've said in past posts, I'm fading England. I don't think their recent form and Garett Southgate's remarkably defensive approach is going to yield results like it did in the last two major tourneys. I'm more uneasy about the Wales opener than what I think the Yanks can do in an England game where all the pressure is on the Three Lions. I definitely am playing U.S. to qualify, but I'm going to sprinkle a little on winning the group given the value there.
Thomas: I don't think they are getting out of the group. I haven't seen anything from them that gives me the belief that they can get results, even when they are playing against the likes of Iran and Wales.
Obviously your answer above likely gives us a hint to the next question, but inquiring minds want to know, do you feel there's any reason to take some action on the USMNT in their second and third games of the tournament? They are +470 versus England and +102 versus Iran, with advancement potentially on the line in that sure-to-be-intense final match.
Carr: Given how drastically one injury or card or goal can change the motivations in later games, I'm not interested in playing future matches until the first set is done. One team could already be eliminated or missing a key player or dealing with who knows what else. I'd rather have as much information as possible before making a call on the second and third group games.
Cuff: I'm not putting money on the second or third games now; I need to see how the entire group looks in form and table before making any plays.
Thomas: The Iran game is arguably their best chance of picking up three points, and I know I sound like a broken record, but I don't think they'll be able to achieve even that.
Most of the hype leading up to Qatar is (rightly) being focused on Christian Pulisic, currently the +300 favorite to lead USA in goal scoring for the tournament. Is the chalk pick the right one to make here or would you take a shot on someone else?
Cuff: I think this U.S. team has developed and is not so reliant on Pulisic necessarily scoring. Coupled with that is every opponent's game plan will be focused on stopping him. I think there are many better future plays to make than top goal scorer, but if I were to play I'd look to Tim Weah at +1200. He's one of our most dynamic attackers whom I think is poised for a breakout tourney.
Thomas: This is going to sound horrible and I hope that I'm wrong, but I could see them not scoring at all in the tournament, which is great value at +1600.
Carr: Dan hates America, huh? Pulisic is understandably the short shot, in part because he takes penalties. The challenge in picking anyone else is that we're guessing on Gregg Berhalter's lineup. Jesus Ferreira or Josh Sargent up top? Weah or Brenden Aaronson or Gio Reyna opposite Pulisic? I think Ferreira will start at least two games, so I'll take him at +450, considering how Berhalter's system is designed to funnel chances to the center forward and that Ferreira took a shot every 32 minutes in qualifying. At longer odds, I don't mind Weston McKennie at +1600, with his abilities on set pieces and as a late runner into the box.