By Collin Giuliani
The Road to Brazil in 2014 was routinely easy for the United States. After an opening day loss to Honduras 1-0, the USMNT recorded 22 points in their final nine games in the final round of qualification. Mexico, which normally stands in the USA’s way, finished qualifying with a negative goal differential, and would have missed the World Cup altogether if not for a stoppage time goal by the United States against Panama on the final day. In five home matches, the USMNT did not concede a single goal, outscoring their opponents 8-0, and finished atop the group with the most points, most goals, and best goal differential of any team.
If only it were that easy this time around.
With two matches left in the final round of qualification for the 2018 World Cup, the USMNT is hanging on for dear life. They are in danger of missing the World Cup for the first time since 1986, although at least they had an excuse back then. In 1986, CONCACAF was only granted one spot in the World Cup due to Mexico hosting the tournament.
After losing two home matches to Mexico and Costa Rica, it marks the first time since 1957 that the USA have lost two home matches in the final round of a World Cup qualifying cycle, although at least they had an excuse back then. The USMNT was not even an iota of what it is today, as during that qualifying cycle for the 1958 World Cup, the USMNT was made up entirely of players from an amateur club called St. Louis Kutis.
And, among the blemishes for the USMNT during this cycle was a 4-0 loss to Costa Rica, which later turned out to be the last game with Jurgen Klinsmann as the manager. It was the first time since 1980 that the USA lost a World Cup qualifying match by 4 goals, although at least they had an excuse back then. That match on November 9, 1980 took place at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico. The USA had never even managed to secure a draw against Mexico on the road at that time, and had not beaten Mexico since a 1934 World Cup qualifier in Rome.
The USMNT is out of excuses, and in some ways, hanging on by a thread. But there is a chance.
According to ESPN, the USMNT has a 74 percent chance of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup, which is the third greatest odds of any team in CONCACAF, behind Mexico (already clinched) and Costa Rica (99 percent). While the USMNT is not out of it by any means, the margin for error that the USMNT has, especially if they are going to qualify directly and not through the intercontinental playoff against the fifth place team in Asia, is slim to none.
With the USMNT sitting in fourth place, only ahead of Honduras by goal differential, what does the USMNT have to do in order to qualify?
Game #9: Panama @ USA (Location: Orlando)
While the USMNT has been rather poor on their home field, having lost two home matches in this qualifying round alone, the schedule for the USMNT the rest of the way is the easiest in the group. The final two games of the qualifying cycle are a home match against a team that has been shut out in their last three road matches in qualifying, and a road match against the worst team in the region. It starts with a home match in Orlando against Panama. The last time these teams met in the qualifying cycle, the match was played in Panama and ended in a 1-1 draw. Generally speaking in CONCACAF, anytime a team can secure at least a point on the road, it’s a good result, and the USMNT’s draw to Panama back in March was no exception.
All signs point to a USMNT win based on that information, right? Well… that’s where things get a bit tricky. The last time these teams played in the USA was during the 2017 Gold Cup over the summer. Despite the fact that the game was held in Nashville, Panama ended up drawing 1-1 on American soil. The time before that, at the 2015 Gold Cup, Panama won in Philadelphia on a penalty kick shootout in the third place match. Panama has not only been a formidable opponent every time they play in the United States, but has been as evenly matched with the USMNT in recent years as it can possibly get, as the last four matches between these two sides have ended in 1-1 draws.
Additionally, unlike the USMNT following their rather abysmal performance in the September qualifiers (home loss to Costa Rica and barely scraping by Honduras to secure a point), Panama actually has momentum on their side. Panama is coming off of a 3-0 victory against Trinidad and Tobago in their last qualifier, which is Panama’s largest victory against a FIFA opponent in more than three years, when they defeated Cuba 4-0 back in August of 2014. On top of that, Panama has recorded at least a point in four of their last five matches, including a home draw against the United States and a road draw against Costa Rica, the second best team in the region. The only time that Panama could not record a point in their last five matches was a 1-0 defeat at Estadio Azteca against Mexico, a venue where Panama has never even recorded a point.
Game #10: USA @ Trinidad and Tobago (Location: Couva)
Going on the road in CONCACAF is never easy. Having said that, of the six teams in this round of qualifying, going on the road to Trinidad and Tobago is the easiest task. The USMNT will be getting Trinidad and Tobago at the perfect time. In eight games during this cycle, the Soca Warriors have recorded just one win, which was a 1-0 victory against Panama back in March. The Soca Warriors have dropped their last five matches in qualifying, and will likely drop six straight entering their match against the USMNT, as the Soca Warriors have to go into Estadio Azteca to play Mexico, a place where they have never won.
Trinidad and Tobago cannot qualify directly for the World Cup, and need loads of help to even have a shot at qualifying through the intercontinental playoff. Even if the Soca Warriors win their final two games against Mexico and the USA, and even if both the USMNT and Honduras drop their final two games, allowing Trinidad and Tobago to be in a three-way tie for fourth place, the Soca Warriors still need to find a way to have a better goal differential than all of those teams. This is a daunting task, considering the fact that the goal differential for the Soca Warriors sits at -11, which is 12 goals behind the USMNT’s goal differential of +1.
It is almost all but certain that entering the final game of the cycle, Trinidad and Tobago will be mathematically eliminated from qualifying for the World Cup, and will not be able to duplicate the success that they had during their miraculous run to qualify in 2006. How will the Soca Warriors play if they do not have much to play for, outside of pride? Things look so bleak right now for Trinidad and Tobago that this match against the USMNT is not even taking place at their national stadium. Instead of playing at the 23,000-seat Hasely Crawford Stadium in Port of Spain, arguably the most intimidating soccer stadium in all of the Caribbean when at full capacity, this match will take place at the much smaller, 10,000-seat Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva.
Between the stadium, the form of the Soca Warriors, and the diminished implications for Trinidad and Tobago entering this game, this should be an advantage for the USMNT, right? Well… that’s where things get a bit tricky. The last time these teams met in Trinidad and Tobago, the end result was a poor 0-0 draw where the USMNT could only muster up two shots on goal. In the USMNT’s last three matches at the Caribbean nation, they possess a 1-1-1 record, which is far from the dominant record one would expect when comparing the gap between these two nations in the FIFA rankings (Trinidad and Tobago is tied for 99th in the rankings, alongside El Salvador, while the USMNT sits in 28th). And, while the USMNT won 2-0 the last time these teams met earlier this year in qualifying, it was not a comfortable win by any stretch of the imagination, as the match was goalless at the end of the first half.
Should the USMNT qualify for the World Cup? Absolutely. To not qualify for the World Cup would be the biggest soccer disaster in the history of the United States. With the growth and rising popularity of the sport in this country, to not qualify for the World Cup would put all of that positive momentum to a screeching halt. In fairness to the USMNT, there is no reason why they should not be able to muster up, at a minimum, four points from their final two games of this cycle. Considering the fact that Panama (currently in third with 10 points) finishes off the cycle against a very strong Costa Rica side, and Honduras (currently in fifth with 9 points and a worse goal differential than the USMNT) finishes off the cycle with two matches against the top two teams in the group in Costa Rica and Mexico, four points from the final two games should be enough for the USMNT to qualify. Six points guarantees it.
Despite the turmoil surrounding this entire cycle of qualifying, the USMNT still controls its own destiny to qualify directly for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Six points from the final two matches guarantees that the USMNT qualifies directly. Anything less than that, and things get a bit murky. A loss in that stretch, on the other hand, makes direct qualification nearly impossible, and leaves the USMNT truly hanging on by a thread.
While the USMNT should qualify for the World Cup, they are making it a lot harder than it had to be. The team’s quest to qualify for their eighth consecutive World Cup has, by no means, been easy. With two games left in this cycle, it’s now or never for the Stars and Stripes.