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Backing the United States as a World Cup Favorite? History Says Be Careful

Backing the United States as a World Cup Favorite? History Says Be Careful article feature image
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DeFodi Images/Getty. Pictured: Gio Reyna.

The United States Men’s National Team enters Monday’s Group B opener at the 2022 FIFA World Cup as a slim but decisive favorite against Wales.

If history is an indication, that may not be good for USA fans.

The United States have a solid World Cup record since first ending their 40-year drought by reaching the 1990 iteration of the event. They’ve advanced beyond their group on four of seven occasions and reached the quarterfinals — their best finish in the modern era of the program — in the 2002 Korea-Japan tournament.

But since 1998 — when records available via BetExplorer.com first begin — the Americans have won only one of the five matches in which they were a closing-line favorite. The lone win took one of the greatest miracles in USMNT history.

Here’s a look back at some of that ugly past:

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France 1998: USA 1, Iran 2

USA Odds +110
Iran Odds +295
Draw +195
Date  June 21, 1998
Stage Group F, Matchday 2
Venue | Location Stade de Gerland | Lyon
Odds via BetExplorer.com

In retrospect, a clunker here was predictable. In the buildup to the tournament, manager Steve Sampson felt he had no choice but to banish captain John Harkes after what was later revealed as an off-field scandal within the team. Additionally, expectations were unrealistically high after the success of USA ’94.

But, the forces of patriotism and geopolitics from an American perspective, combined with a lack of historic success by Asian teams at the World Cup at the time led to bookmakers favoring the United States.

Hamid Estili put Iran up just before the break on a fantastic header, Medhi Madhavikia punished the Americans with a late second on the counter, and Brian McBride’s 87th-minute consolation goal only flattered the losers.

Korea-Japan 2002: Poland 3, USA 1 

Poland Odds +311
USA Odds -105
Draw +195
Date  June 14, 2002
Stage Group D, Matchday 3
Venue | Location Daegu World Cup Stadium | Daegu
Odds via BetExplorer.com

It’s easy to forget the USA nearly sabotaged their best World Cup performance of the program’s modern era with a woeful effort in their 2002 group finale.

After a stunning 3-2 win over Portugal in their opener and a fortunate 1-1 draw against co-hosts South Korea, conventional wisdom said the Americans could grind out a result against an already-eliminated Poland team.

Instead, the Poles played for pride, and Bruce Arena likely erred by showing loyalty to center back Jeff Agoos during a rough tournament. The result was a 3-1 loss.

The Americans went through only because Portugal was even worse in their finale, going down to nine men before conceding to South Korea in a 1-0 loss, when a draw would’ve seen them advance.

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South Africa 2010: Slovenia 2, USA 2

Slovenia Odds +269
USA Odds +112
Draw +218
Date  June 18, 2010
Stage Group C, Matchday 2
Venue | Location Ellis Park Stadium | Johannesburg
Odds via BetExplorer.com

If Bob Bradley’s 2010 team had a flaw, it was slow starts, and that was never more the case than in their second group match against Slovenia. Valter Birsa had the Slovenians ahead after 13 minutes, and Zlatan Ljubijankić doubled the advantage just before the break.

Fortunately for the Americans, their big players showed up in a big moment. Landon Donovan pulled a goal back only three minutes after halftime, and Michael Bradley hammered a finish from a tight angle into the roof of the net in the 83rd minute to level things.

The Americans might actually have clinched their passage from the group that night, but Maurice Edu’s apparent late winner was ruled out incorrectly.

South Africa 2010: USA 1, Algeria 0

USA Odds -116
Algeria Odds +321
Draw +257
Date  June 23, 2010
Stage Group C, Matchday 3
Venue | Location Loftus Versfeld Stadium | Pretoria
Odds via BetExplorer.com

Needing all three points to advance from their group, the Americans were the better side playing as a favorite for once, but in truth neither team created much.

Mercifully, a breakthrough came in the first minute of second-half stoppage time in that famous moment of modern USMNT World Cup history.

The transition attack began with goalkeeper Tim Howard’s distribution and ended with Landon Donovan’s euphoric finish. In between, Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey were also involved.

South Africa 2010: USA 1, Ghana 2 (AET)

USA Odds +141
Ghana Odds +219
Draw +207
Date  June 26, 2010
Stage Group C, Matchday 3
Venue | Location Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium | Port Elizabeth
Odds via BetExplorer.com

In terms of the three-way line, this is the game that sat closest to where the odds are currently between the USA and Wales.

It also marks the only time the United States have ever been favored in their five knockout phase matches since 1994.

But, on this occasion the Americans were playing only three days after all the emotion of Donovan’s Algeria heroics, in a tournament where the majority of matches were played at altitude.

They simply couldn’t match the level of effort or quality of a deep Ghanaian side, who were unlucky not to win in 90 minutes after Donovan converted a penalty.

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