The European Championship is getting bigger in every sense. There are more teams (it expanded to 24 in the last edition), more host cities (it will be staged across 12 in 2020), and of course more money (a convenient byproduct for UEFA’s coffers).
Perhaps the next natural step in the tournament’s fiscally motivated evolution is to invite guests from other federations, much like CONMEBOL has done for the Copa America.
If the sanctity of the competition was to be shaken in this manner, what would happen if the United States were invited to join in on the fun?
Or, to expand the theoretical exercise further, what if the USMNT became an honorary 56th member of UEFA and went through the rigmarole of European tournament qualification?
How would Gregg Berhalter’s boys fare?
USMNT might struggle to qualify for Euro 2020
On the back of the dour and listless defeat to Canada on Tuesday, it is valid to question whether the United States would be good enough to appear at the big show.
Unfortunately, there is some evidence to suggest this pessimism is well-founded. The USMNT have failed to win any of their last seven matches against a European team, conceding four unanswered goals in their last two.
Their last win over a UEFA nation came back in January 2016, when Jurgen Klinsmann’s side edged a 3-2 win over Iceland, thanks to a 90th-minute Steven Birnbaum header at a half-empty Dignity Health Sports Park.
Qualification would also depend on which pot the USMNT were placed in. The pots for 2020 were designated by UEFA Nations League rankings; given the USMNT’s recent form, it seems likely they would be placed in Pot Three (with the teams ranked 21st through 30th).
Of the current Pot Three teams, only Turkey, Ireland and Finland are currently in a position to qualify from their group.
Even if the USMNT were placed in Pot Two, qualification would not be completely assured. Pot Two’s Iceland and Wales — both of whom went deep at Euro 2016 — are also out of the running for a top-two finish in their respective groups at the moment.
Looking through the qualification groups, it is tricky to find one where the USMNT could reasonably usurp either of the two biggest nations. Groups A (England and the Czech Republic), B (Portugal and Ukraine), C (Netherlands and Germany), F (Spain and Sweden), G (Poland and Austria), H (France and Turkey) and I (Belgium and Russia) all appear insurmountable.
For the most part, UEFA’s qualification field is deep and highly competitive.
“The likes of Kosovo, Czech Republic, Northern Ireland and Hungary all failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, but have looked superb over the last year,” says Bleacher Report’s Sam Tighe. “Ukraine have topped Portugal’s group and France look like they’re going to finish second to Turkey.
“It’s tough to believe the USA are even on the Czech Republic’s level right now, let alone Ukraine’s. They probably couldn’t qualify for the finals on merit if they had to.”
The USMNT were unable to clear the most recent World Cup Hexagonal in 2017 (a format that is essentially designed to facilitate their success) and they do not appear to have evolved since that failure. So could they be expected to get the better of an established European nation in this context?
“I think the harsh reality is that it would be difficult for us to have as much success as we would like,” says former USMNT international Jimmy Conrad. “However, if we had to cut our teeth in Europe to qualify for major events, then I absolutely guarantee you that our player, coaching, scouting, and referee development would be a lot farther along than it is now because it would have to be.
“We wouldn't survive otherwise."
In the Euro 2020 qualification format, however, there are an additional four playoff places available for the best performers in the UEFA Nations League.
With this extra lifeline, plus the chance of a fortuitous qualification draw, let’s proceed under the assumption that the USMNT would reach the tournament proper.
How would the USMNT perform at Euro 2020?
Despite the concerns for qualification, the USMNT might actually be well-placed to get some results on the big European stage. They are 21st in the FIFA Rankings, with only 12 UEFA teams ranking ahead of them. Only 11 of the 24 teams who qualified for Euro 2016 are ahead of the USMNT by FIFA’s metrics.
This may not be a reliable indicator of European Championship performance (the USMNT played far fewer European teams to earn their ranking), but it suggests a middle-of-the-pack finish is possible.
“I think there’s a chance — maybe only slightly better than a Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber chance — that Berhalter’s boys get out of the group stage before losing in the Round of 16,” says Daryl Grove of The Total Soccer Show.
“Sound optimistic? Well, don’t forget that the Euros is a 24-team tournament and the four best third-place finishers make it to the knockout round.”
In 2016, those four teams were Ireland, Slovakia, Northern Ireland and eventual winners Portugal.
“It would require a favorable group stage draw,” says Grove, “but if Northern Ireland did it in 2016 then I think the U.S. could do it in 2020.”
Could the USMNT reach the knockout stages?
Not only does the expanded Euro format give a better chance for advancement to the knockout rounds, but it dilutes the talent pool of the tournament, which would be to the United States’ advantage.
“That format change has lowered the bar significantly,” says soccer writer Graham Ruvthen. “Time may have faded the memory, but the standard at Euro 2016 wasn't up to much. I think the USMNT would be in the mix to finish third in the groups and make the last 16 that way. Even that might be a stretch at present, though. I'd take the likes of Northern Ireland or Slovakia over Berhalter's struggling team right now.”
If Berhalter was willing to abandon his commitment to playing aesthetically pleasing passes out from the back, he could learn from those successful World Cup teams. A USMNT side that defends deep and is bold enough to push forward on the counter could upset some major nations. It wouldn’t be pretty, but it’s how Portugal are both European and UEFA Nations League champions right now.
“Look at the big wins Jurgen Klinsmann enjoyed against Italy and the Netherlands,” says soccer writer Kristan Heneage. The US was allowed to be a counter-attacking underdog, and it suited them more.”
The USMNT also have a tendency to raise their game and overperform on the big stage. They reached the round of 16 in the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, and unexpectedly dashed to the quarterfinals in 2002.
“Where I think the U.S. might benefit from playing in Europe is the change in expectation,” Heneage says. “People see the U.S. and Mexico as the two leaders in the region, but when they play European teams in friendlies, they’re rarely considered the favorite.”
Recent major tournaments have shown us the U.S. relish underdog status. A limp loss in Toronto may feel disheartening, but it comes with a very different set of expectations to the very biggest stage and the very biggest opposition.
Conclusion on USMNT in Euro 2020
The consensus on this theoretical question seems to be split between two camps: those who believe the USMNT would struggle to qualify, and those who feel the ceiling is a round of 16 appearance via a third-place group finish.
If we take a mean average of those two opinions, the Americans would reach the big show, but would bomb out by finishing bottom of their group.
Fortunately for Berhalter, UEFA aren’t accepting guests to their showpiece event at this time.
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