Get all of Brian Straus’s columns as soon as they’re published. Download the new Sports Illustrated app (iOS or Android) and personalize your experience by following your favorite teams and SI writers.
The MLS season is only three weeks old, Leicester City is hurtling toward history in England and the UEFA Champions League quarterfinal pairings were just unveiled. So naturally, as momentum builds, it’s time now to take a breather and look toward a competition that’s more than two years away.
Soccer’s congested global calendar continues to lengthen the World Cup qualifying process. The U.S. started down its road to the quadrennial finals earlier than in any previous cycle and across the globe, 85 teams in four continental confederations—about 40% of the 209 eligible participants—already have been eliminated. Only UEFA has yet to kick off. Its qualifying competition will begin after this summer’s European Championship tournament in France. The rest of the planet is well underway, and even though much of the Western Hemisphere is anticipating the Copa América Centenario this June, there’s the matter of a week of World Cup qualifiers to tend to first.
Starting Thursday morning and continuing through Tuesday, countries in CONCACAF, South America and Asia will contest 51 matches.
The games will begin early Thursday morning in Adelaide, where reigning AFC champion Australia will taken on Tajikistan. The day also includes a rematch of last year’s Copa América final between Chile and Argentina. Six CONCACAF contests will be played Friday, and most of the planet (six MLS clubs will be on duty) will take a breather over the weekend before reconvening on Tuesday.
The U.S., 1-0-1 in its four-team semifinal group, will play Guatemala (1-1-0) on Friday in Guatemala City and then again on Tuesday in Columbus. The Americans are on a 21-game unbeaten streak against Los Chapines dating back to 1988, and two more wins will almost guarantee a spot in the Hexagonal, which begins in November (again, earlier than ever). Even four points would leave the U.S. in very good shape. There’s a bit more tension elsewhere in CONCACAF, however, and in Asia the stakes are highest. By next week, the 40 World Cup hopefuls that began the current round will have been whittled down to 12.
Here’s a look at several qualification storylines that should unfold over the next few days:
Showdown in Santiago
South American teams are only four games into their 18-match marathon, but it’s still surprising to see Argentina (1-1-2) and Chile (2-1-1) outside the four automatic qualification places (the fifth-place team advances to a playoff against the Oceania winner). It’s certainly not time to panic. But less than a year removed from their meeting in the Copa América final and only a couple months after Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli’s shock resignation following a dispute with the national governing body, Thursday’s qualifier between La Roja and La Albiceleste arrives with plenty of intrigue.
Succeeding Sampaoli is Juan Antonio Pizzi, an Argentine native who played in and for Spain in the 1990s. He’s managed several big clubs since retiring, including Universidad Católica, San Lorenzo, Valencia and most recently, Club León. Pizzi changes jobs frequently, however, and this is his first running a national team. Sampaoli will be a tough act to follow, and Argentina, with Lionel Messi in tow, will bring a loaded roster to Estadio Nacional.
Rising Juventus star Paulo Dybala and Paris Saint-Germain’s Javier Pastore will miss out, but Argentina coach Gerardo Martino wasn’t boasting when he said, “There is not much to say about the injured players. We always have good replacements available with this team.”
Suárez returns for Uruguay, faces Neymar
Twenty-one months after taking a bite out of Giorgio Chiellini in Natal, Luis Suárez finally is eligible to return to Uruguay. And his nine-game suspension (official competition only) is over just in time for a meeting with Barcelona teammate Neymar and Brazil. As two thirds of the famed MSN trio at the Camp Nou, Suárez and Neymar are torching La Liga and Europe. Now they face off against each other for three points and a burger—there’s a friendly wager on the outcome—on Friday in Recife.
"I also know Neymar very well but on the pitch it's different. All the rivals know how each footballer plays but on the pitch you do things according to the moment,” Suárez told reporters in Spain.
Doing things according to the moment, of course, can be spectacular or get Suárez into tons of trouble. But the 29-year-old said he’s moved on from World Cup disgrace: "What happened has allowed me to learn how to manage all the pressure that’s on me. Uruguay is a united group that doesn't depend on just one player.”
Without him, Uruguay is 3-1-0 in qualifying with impressive 3-0 home wins over Chile and Colombia. Center back Diego Godín, of all people, has picked up the scoring slack with three goals. Brazil is two points back at 2-1-1, the loss coming on the road to Chile. Neymar was suspended for Brazil's first two games and has yet to find the net for the Seleção.
Canada at a crossroads vs. Mexico
Having failed to reach the Hex in each of the past four cycles, which is remarkable, Canada (1-0-1) is desperate to make something out of this qualifying campaign. And it has an enticing opportunity to do so when it plays Mexico (2-0-0) on Friday in Vancouver and next Tuesday at Estadio Azteca.
Honduras’s surprising 0-2-0 start has left the door open for Canada to snatch Group A’s second spot in the Hex. Los Catrachos meet El Salvador (0-1-1) twice and should be expected to mount a challenge at some point, leaving the points available to Canada over the next week absolutely crucial.
Canadian fans are on board, and a sellout reportedly is expected Friday at BC Place. CSA general secretary Peter Montopoli said, “The key word we use internally often is hope. We are selling hope and I believe in this campaign everybody’s believed in the hope and this hope will transcend itself and bring the country together. We will rise to a new level because its our turn. It’s our destiny. Yes, it hasn’t happened tine past. Let’s not the past destroy our future.”
Shut out in three games at last year’s Gold Cup, Canada will look to Orlando City’s Cyle Larin, who has three goals in three MLS games this season, to poach a goal or two against El Tri. Canada also is expected to deploy Scott Arfield, a Scottish native who plays for English Premier League-bound Burnley and just filed a one-time switch to Canada. His father is from Toronto. Junior Hoilett and Tesho Akindele are other relative newcomers who may make a difference.
“The confidence coming into this camp, looking at the names we have on our side, we have no fear,” veteran Julian de Guzman told reporters. “It’s a different feel versus the way it has been in the past.”
Crunch time for Colombia
Colombia, which impressed and entertained at the 2014 World Cup before being pounded into submission by Brazil, is in seventh place in South America at 1-2-1. Again, it’s far too early to panic, but Los Cafeteros have a couple of tough assignments coming up, against Bolivia (1-3-0) in the altitude of La Paz on Thursday and then at home versus 4-0-0 Ecuador next week. A couple more setbacks certainly would justify some concern.
Captain James Rodríguez has had a somewhat difficult season at Real Madrid and has become the focus of transfer rumors. His goal against AS Roma last week was only his third in the past four months. Midfielder Juan Cuadrado and forward Carlos Bacca, who star in Serie A, will have to rise to the occasion to drag Colombia out of its funk. Coach José Pékerman’s team finished 2015 with just one victory in seven matches.
Americans in Asia
Many of the usual suspects already are well on their way to Asia’s third round, which will comprise two groups of six teams each. The battle for two less-certain berths will impact the World Cup fortunes of two Michigan natives, one of whom could take part this week.
Former Sporting Kansas City forward Soony Saad, who’s now playing professionally in Thailand, is part of the Lebanon side that sits third in Group G at 3-2-1. It trails Kuwait, which currently is under FIFA suspension, on goal difference. The runner-up behind South Korea will have a shot at a spot in the next round (the top four of 10 second-place finishers qualify). Lebanon will conclude group play at South Korea on Tuesday and at home against Myanmar (2-4-1). With the right results, a pending ruling by the FIFA Disciplinary Committee on Kuwait’s World Cup fate will be irrelevant.
Saad has appeared four times for Lebanon and has yet to feature in the World Cup campaign, but he’s been called up for the upcoming qualifiers.
Columbus Crew midfielder Justin Meram has played 17 times and scored two World Cup qualifying goals for Iraq, but won’t be part of the team that plays Thailand and Vietnam in Tehran (Iraq can’t host games).
Iraq (2-0-2) trails the Thais (4-0-1) by five points and could clinch first with two wins. It leads Vietnam (1-2-1) by four and should at least finish second.
LA Galaxy defender AJ DeLaGarza, who’s from Maryland, will join Guam despite the team’s elimination from World Cup qualifying. The Matao (2-4-1) visit Oman on Tuesday and can still move on in qualifying for the 2019 Asian Cup.
China facing early elimination, again
The obscene amounts of money being spent by Chinese Super League clubs and on academies and training centers may make a difference down the road for the soccer’s most underachieving nation, but it’s almost certainly too late for 2018. China has qualified for just one World Cup (2002, when it had no wins and no goals) and hosts Maldives and Qatar over the next week. At 3-1-2, it can’t catch Qatar (6-0-0) and trails Hong Kong (4-1-2) for second place in Group C.
China needs good results and some help in order to finish among the best runners-up. It has been eliminated at this penultimate stage of Asian qualifying in each of the past three cycles.