A rendering of the Fox Sports studio for the 2022...

A rendering of the Fox Sports studio for the 2022 World Cup in Doha, Qatar. Credit: Fox Sports

There is a lot about this year’s men’s soccer World Cup that is different from any that has come before — notably its location and timing.

But for Fox Sports, the most welcome difference is one particularly glaring contrast between 2018 and 2022: a certain entry that wears “USA” on its uniforms.

“Having the home team as part of the tournament obviously is much better,” analyst Alexi Lalas told Newsday at a recent event in Manhattan to promote Fox’s coverage.

“Not qualifying for the last World Cup, for me, is the biggest failure in U.S. soccer history. Having said that, it might have been a step back to go two steps forward.”

The United States hopes that’s the case as it fields the youngest team in the draw, presumably with an eye toward 2026, when North America will host the event.

“The good part is that they have a youthful exuberance, a youthful swagger and a belief in themselves, and they’ve had a very successful cycle,” Lalas said.

“For a lot of them, they’ll be stepping on the field at a World Cup for the first time and fulfilling a dream.”

It is no wonder they will be stepping on a World Cup pitch for the first time. It has been eight-plus years since an American team did so, when the USA lost to Belgium in the Round of 16 in Brazil on July 1, 2014.

Four years later, the Americans were absent in Russia, a shocking blow not only to the U.S. program but to the event’s English-language American television partners.

But Fox believes its experience with that tournament only made it stronger.

“Four years ago, we learned a lot of lessons about how to cover an event without the U.S.,” executive producer David Neal said. “I think it’s one of our proudest moments as a World Cup rights-holder.”

Said analyst Stu Holden: “The U.S. back in the World Cup just feels right. In 2018, to be able to cover that tournament and cover it the way we did, it was a wonderful World Cup. But not having the U.S. felt different.”

This year’s World Cup, the first held in the Middle East, was moved from summer to late autumn to blunt the effects of Qatar’s extreme heat.

It runs from Nov. 20 to Dec. 18, with the United States opening against Wales on Nov. 21, facing England on Nov. 25 and taking on Iran on Nov. 29.

Initially, Fox was wary of going against the NFL and other popular TV fare at this time of year, but it has decided to embrace the idea, using heavy promotion on popular shows such as NFL games and an ad campaign tied to it being the holiday season.

The time difference will mean that group-stage matches mostly begin at 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. in the Eastern United States on Fox or FS1.

John Strong and Holden will be the lead announcing team. Other pairs are Derek Rae and Aly Wagner, JP Dellacamera and Cobi Jones, Ian Darke and Landon Donovan, and Jacqui Oatley and Warren Barton.

Former U.S. women’s star Carli Lloyd will join Lalas among the studio analysts.

The event will be far more compact in tiny Qatar than in most countries, as the host nation seeks to put on a good show amid concerns from many quarters about its human rights record.

Fox’s main set will be in Doha, the capital, and will be fashioned entirely of LED screens.

“I think it will be visible from Mars,” Neal joked. “It will be the most high-tech piece of equipment you’ve ever seen on television.”

But the matches are the thing, and Fox hopes Team USA at least makes it out of the group stage, which will be far more likely if it can beat Wales.

The X-factor is how play will be affected by most major pro leagues taking an in-season break for the tournament. Lalas said the intrigue of the unknown is part of the fun.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Like, who can turn it around quickest? It’s so different and puts everybody on kind of an even plane in that obviously we’re being in the Middle East for the first time, and the Brigadoon-ish type of experience that Doha is going to be.

“For soccer people, it’s going to be beautiful, going to multiple games. Players don’t have to get on planes to fly to satellite cities. So I think that that will be reflected in the quality that’s on the field.”

As always, the host country will provide a backdrop — in this case a unique one.

“Our responsibility, ultimately, is to paint the picture and talk about what is happening and give people a feel,” Lalas said. “We’re strangers in a strange land, a very different country and a very different culture, and we have to respect that.

“But on the other side, this is a coming-out party, if you will, for Qatar, and they want to put their best face and foot forward. It behooves them to have everything go well.”

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