Mark Zeigler: World Cup thoughts: the Euro-centric lineup, the 2026 format, Fox's coverage and more

USA coach Gregg Berhalter applauds the fans after the Qatar 2022 World Cup Group B football match against Iran at the Al-Thumama Stadium in Doha on Nov. 29, 2022. - GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

Some thoughts from afar on the 2022 World Cup in Qatar as it heads to the knockout stage:

The lineup

When Gregg Berhalter dropped Nashville FC defender Walker Zimmerman and replaced him Tuesday with Cameron Carter-Vickers, he quietly achieved national-team history. It was the first time since the inception of Major League Soccer in 1996 that no current MLS players started for the U.S. in the World Cup — a span of 22 games.

It is something Germany's Jurgen Klinsmann spoke candidly about during his five-year tenure as national coach, particularly when Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley returned to MLS ahead of the 2014 World Cup. "It's going to be very difficult to keep the same level that they experienced at the places where they were," Klinsmann said at the time. "It's just reality. It's just being honest."

MLS Commissioner Don Garber wasn't amused, firing off cease and desist letters to Klinsmann and U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, then taking the rare move of calling a news conference to blast the national coach.

"Jurgen's comments are very, very detrimental to the league, to the sport of soccer in North America, detrimental to everything we're trying to do," Garber said. "Not only that, I think they're wrong. … To have a national team coach saying that signing with our league is not going to be good for their careers, and not good for their prospects with the national team, is incredibly damaging to our league."

The appointment of Berhalter, an American plucked from the Columbus Crew, by a federation inextricably linked to MLS was seen in some quarters (including this one) as protection of the league's interests. To the federation's credit, it hasn't been. Berhalter has freedom to select his lineups and in a must-win situation against Iran he went all Euro.

It's not a stinging indictment of MLS, which has made great strides in a mere 27 years — still in its infancy compared to its competition around the world — and has 37 players on World Cup rosters in Qatar. It just means it's not there yet, nor is this country's flawed youth development system.

And to the players' credit, they recognized that and got on a plane. Chelsea, AC Milan, Juventus, Celtic, Fulham, Leeds United, Valencia, Lille, Norwich City.

Four starters against Iran were born in Europe or moved there shortly after birth. Eight were playing there before they were 18. Tyler Adams went at 19. Only three played in MLS, and that includes 35-year-old center back Tim Ream, who left 11 years ago.

The stat

Maybe starting a lineup of all European-based players will help the Americans in the quarterfinals against the Netherlands, a European team. They'll need something.

Their World record since 1990 against European opposition: 19 games played, one victory. That was 3-2 against Portugal in the 2002 opener (when a cross bounced off the neck of a defender into the goal).

But Berhalter and Co. don't have to actually "beat" the Dutch on Saturday. They can prevail in a penalty shootout, which in soccer statistics is counted as a draw.

The new format

Hope you enjoyed the scintillating drama from Match Day 3 of the group stage, because this is the last time you'll see it.

The World Cup expands to 48 teams in 2026 when the United States, Canada and Mexico host, which means the end of the current format and the unique dimension of group finales played simultaneously.

There were the riveting final minutes Wednesday as Mexico desperately pushed forward against Saudi Arabia for a goal that would put it through while fans nervously checked the progress of Argentina-Poland on their phones (and vice versa). A day later, it got even crazier, with all four teams in Group E in position to advance at various times before Japan and Spain did (and Germany and Costa Rica did not).

The 2026 format: 16 groups of three, with the top two in each advancing to a 32-team knockout stage.

In other words: You basically use the group stage to eliminate the 16 undeserving teams you let in.

That also likely ends qualifying drama. There might still be some in Europe, which gets only three extra spots from 13 to 16. CONCACAF gets six plus a chance for a seventh through an intercontinental playoff. Asia gets eight, Africa nine. Oceania has a guaranteed berth now.

Do we really need to see El Salvador, Oman, Mali and New Zealand? Do we need to see them lose 6-nil to Brazil?

FIFA President Gianni Infantino needs to, since it consolidates his power and significantly boosts his chances for re-election. With a one-country, one-vote system where Brunei carries the same weight as Brazil, spreading the wealth increases your electability — a strategy ripped straight from the Sepp Blatter playbook.

The region

Speaking of CONCACAF …

Exactly why does it deserve to double its World Cup berths? It had statistically its worst group stage since 2006, when Mexico finished second and the other three CONCACAF nations were last for a 1-8-3 record with a minus-13 combined goal differential.

The Qatar performance: 3-6-2 with a minus-13 goal differential. Canada and Costa Rica finished last in their groups, Mexico finished third and the U.S. second.

And consider the U.S. got a gift draw alongside two of the worst teams in the tournament in Wales and Iran. What happens if they were in Groups C through G?

Mexico ended its streak of reaching the knockout stage in seven straight tournaments. As recently as 2014, three CONCACAF teams survived the group stage.

The flip side: The U.S. and Canada both sent young teams to Qatar with an eye toward 2026, and Mexico has too much talent, too good a domestic league and too strong a soccer culture not to reinvent itself in four years, when, remember, it will play games at altitude on home grass.

The coverage

The mid-term grade for Fox's coverage: a solid C.

The plan was to send a skeleton crew to Qatar and produce games remotely before the network reportedly cut a sponsorship deal with government-owned Qatar Airways and sent what it called "a little army" of 150 staffers. Fox has refused to discuss Qatar's human rights record or mention on air that, in going 0-3 with one goal scored and seven conceded, the country had the worst performance by a host nation in World Cup history. (Fox denies any quid pro quo.)

They also have a case of the "we's" when discussing the U.S. national team, removing any shred of journalistic objectivity remaining.

This just in: You're not on the team.

But at least Fox didn't pull a TF1, the French broadcaster that immediately cut to a commercial break after an apparent late goal had given Les Bleus a 1-1 tie against Tunisia and didn't wait for the VAR review, which negated Antoine Griezmann's goal for offside.

The equal payouts

After Fox, no one might be rooting harder for the U.S. men's national team … than the U.S. women's national team.

U.S. Soccer's historic equal-pay agreement last spring includes the unprecedented arrangement of the men and women splitting World Cup payouts from their respective tournaments, even though they vary widely in total purse based on international TV rights fees. The U.S. win against Iran putting it into the round of 16 was worth $13 million. The federation keeps 10 percent, then distributes $5.85 million to each national team.

That's roughly the same as the U.S. haul for winning both the last two Women's World Cups.

Total FIFA expected payout to national federations from this World Cup: $440 million.

Total FIFA payout from the 2019 Women's World Cup: $30 million.

Depending on your worldview, it's either about-time progressivism or an affront to capitalism. Or perhaps shrewd negotiating by the U.S. women, who recently lost three straight games for the first time in nearly three decades and are watching their global dominance slip away as European nations pour more resources into the sport.

Meanwhile, the payouts continue to climb in Qatar the further you advance. You get $17 million for reaching the quarterfinals, $25 million for fourth place, $27 million for third place, $30 million for second place and $42 million for winning it all.

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