The last time we checked in on the United States Men’s National Team and their quest to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, they were going into a massive set of September qualifiers against Costa Rica (in New Jersey) and Honduras (in Honduras). The hope was they could beat a really good Costa Rica side in the United States and get a win over an overmatched Honduras squad, even if winning abroad in CONCACAF qualifying is really hard.
Instead, the Americans lost to Costa Rica and needed a goal in the 85th minute to draw Honduras. It was not ideal. While the United States didn’t necessarily need to walk out of these with anything more than a point for qualifying purposes, the fact that the squad couldn’t get anything against Costa Rica — a very good team with the best keeper in the region by a mile — and needed something late to get a result against Honduras wasn’t encouraging for a squad with the lofty expectations that the Americans have.
This was especially the case because the United States had two matches left. The good news was it was about as favorable of a slate as the squad could get, taking on a fine but by no means great Panama squad in Orlando before traveling to Trinidad and Tobago to play the worst team they’ll face in qualifying.
On Friday, the United States put forth a convincing performance to beat Panama, 4-0. Christian Pulisic — the American wunderkind who turned 19 last month — obliterated the Panamanians, scoring in the eighth minute after embarrassing essentially their entire defense and setting up a Jozy Altidore strike 11 minutes later. He’s very good.
Altidore would go on to get a second goal in the 43rd minute after Bobby Wood drew a penalty.
Fast forward to the 63rd minute and Wood, who put in his usual hard-working shift with the national team, buried one in the corner that Panama’s keeper had no chance at stopping.
So this match was fun, but it was also massive for the Americans. Heading in, Panama was sitting in third and had 10 points in qualifying, while the United States and Honduras were tied at nine points each (by the tiebreaker of goal differential, the Americans were in fourth). After getting the win, here’s where we stand.
This essentially means that the United States is really close making the World Cup. There are basically three scenarios that can realistically play out. The easiest one is the United States wins in Trinidad and Tobago, at which point it comes in third and automatically makes it to Russia with 15 points in the group. There’s no major concern, there’s no worrying that the team’s future is out of their hands, their ticket is punched.
In the event of a draw — which might be the most realistic option for a result because of the aforementioned difficulty to win on the road — the U.S. is still in great shape. It would be at 13 points with a goal differential of +5, which is fine. If Panama or Honduras would win against Costa Rica or Mexico, respectively, they would also be sitting on 13 points, but they enter these matches with respective goal differentials of -2 and -7.
With goal differential being the first tiebreaker, it would take something disastrous by either of their opponents for them to leapfrog the United States. Sure, Costa Rica and Mexico don’t have too much to play for, but neither side would want to get run off the pitch in such a way that the Americans fall to fourth in goal differential.
The worst scenario, obviously, is a loss. Losing would be very bad and the United States should not do that. It would be stuck at 12 points, which puts the Yanks in position to get jumped by either Panama or Honduras. Both countries would need to win, and if that were to happen, the United States would miss the World Cup, as it would come in fifth. That would be brutal, unless you are of the belief that missing the World Cup would lead to the United States Soccer Federation blowing everything up and starting from square one with an eye on 2022. Seeing as how a massive overhaul of the Federation would not result in the Americans becoming the best team in the world or anything, that’s not happening.
The aforementioned doomsday scenario is not likely, because even though Costa Rica and Mexico have qualified and don’t have much to play for, they’re still better than Panama and Honduras. And of course, if Honduras, Panama, and the United States all lose, no one moves anywhere, and the Americans are going to Russia.
But what happens if one of the two non-American teams win, the United States loses, and the third squad either loses or draws? This would push the Americans down to fourth, which means the World Cup is still very much in play.
There is a downside to this, though: The United States would have to play its way in. This would happen in a pair of matches — one here, one abroad — against the fifth-place team in the Asian Football Confederation. Early on Tuesday morning, the second match in a qualifying playoff between Australia and Syria took place in Sydney. While the Syrians fought valiantly, Australia got a goal in extra time to win the match, 2-1, and advance on aggregate, 3-2.
Now, the Americans should be able to beat Australia, but risking missing the World Cup for a two-match playoff is not ideal, because weird things can happen in soccer when you have 180 minutes to determine your fate, especially when 90 of those minutes would be spent playing in Australia at like 5 a.m. EST.
What is ideal is taking care of business — in just about any capacity that earns points — on Tuesday night against Trinidad and Tobago. The match kicks off at 8 p.m. EST on beIN Sports.