Roadmap to Russia: The USA's 2018 World Cup qualifying Hexagonal task
- Going game-by-game, the U.S. men's national team's 10-match quest to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia and the history the Americans have against their five opponents.
For the U.S. national team, the sixth CONCACAF Hexagonal will kick off like two of its predecessors—with a meeting against rival Mexico in Columbus, Ohio. There is no higher-profile, regularly scheduled soccer game on American soil than this quadrennial qualifier, and in the Crew’s Mapfre Stadium, the U.S. Soccer Federation seems to have found a fortress as forbidding as the Azteca.
In this familiar setting on Nov. 11, the Americans will seek a familiar result. They’re on a run of four straight “dos a ceros” in Columbus. The U.S. then will head to Costa Rica, where it’s similarly consistent. In five Hexagonal matches in San Jose, the U.S. is 0-5-0. And most of them haven’t been close.
Such is the nature of the Hex, the qualifying slog in a top-heavy region where home-field advantage is significant and the same nations, results and faces (does anyone really believe Carlos Ruiz is retiring?) continue to pop up. This year’s sextet—USA, Mexico, Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Trinidad & Tobago—includes five of the participants from 2013, five from 2009 and five from 2005. The Americans know the airports, the hotels and the stadiums in each country and won’t be caught by surprise. They’re aware of what’s ahead. The only twist is that this time the journey starts three months earlier, in November rather than February.
The Americans will be happy with the schedule. Opening with three points against Mexico will set the tone, and each of the five pairs of qualifiers starts with a Friday home game, meaning the team can stay in the U.S. and train without having to fly out and back. Logistically and competitively, there are no excuses. The Hex isn’t easy, but a 10-game slate provides cushion against the inevitable setback or two. In the end, the result has been consistent—the U.S. qualifies. It’s one of only seven nations that has participated in each of the past seven tournaments, and it’s finished first in each of the past three Hexagonals.
The top three finishers following the double round robin will book their tickets to Russia. The fourth place team will face a home-and-home playoff against an Asian counterpart.
Here’s a closer look at the U.S. schedule and the long and familiar road to the 2018 World Cup:
Nov. 11 vs. Mexico in Columbus, Ohio; Nov. 15 at Costa Rica
There’s no chance U.S. Soccer will mess with the tradition established in Columbus, which has hosted the past four qualifiers against Mexico. El Tri has yet to score there, and the existence of some Mapfre Stadium mojo becomes all the more apparent when you look at outcomes at other venues. This decade, the Americans are just 1-2-2 against El Tri elsewhere in the U.S.
Continuing that Columbus run will be vital, because three points in Costa Rica may be impossible to come by. The Americans surely don’t miss playing in the cauldron that is the Estadio Ricardo Saprissa, but Costa Rica’s move down to the Estadio Nacional, which is now five years old, didn’t produce better results. Los Ticos took a third-minute lead and thumped the U.S., 3-1, in September 2013. The U.S. and Costa Rica were the only teams to go 5-0-0 at home in the 2013 Hex.
March 24 vs. Honduras; March 28 at Panama
In September 2001, the U.S. fell to Honduras, 3-2, in a World Cup qualifier in Washington, D.C. Earnie Stewart staked the hosts to a 7th-minute lead, but then missed a penalty kick as halftime beckoned. Los Catrachos emerged revitalized from the RFK Stadium locker room and broke open a 1-1 deadlock, scoring twice. The game is notable for two reasons: It was the first World Cup qualifying start for a 19-year-old forward named Landon Donovan, and it was the last time the U.S. lost a home qualifier.
Since then, the Americans are 7-0-0 against Honduras on U.S. soil in official competition. But expect that ’01 setback to be brought up again next March, and expect this qualifier to be crucial if the U.S. falls in Costa Rica.
A trip to Panama follows, which naturally will bring back memories of the improbable “San Zusi” comeback in 2013. Second half stoppage time goals from Graham Zusi and Aron Jóhannsson resulted in a 3-2 win that was cosmetic for the U.S. but absolutely devastating to Los Canaleros. Panama missed out on a place in a qualifying playoff against New Zealand, paving the way for Mexico to reach Brazil. There is no “revenge” for that kind of setback, but look for Panama to be highly motivated.
The March timing will be challenging for MLS players, who will be less than a month into their seasons.
June 9 vs. Trinidad & Tobago; June 13 at Mexico
June brings another fortunate bit of scheduling—a game against Trinidad that should be the Americans’ easiest of the Hex coming a few days before the daunting trip to Mexico City.
The U.S. beat the Soca Warriors 4-0 on Tuesday evening in Jacksonville, Florida, and is 12-0-1 all-time at home against the Hex’s lone Caribbean participant. Klinsmann certainly won’t take T&T lightly—not after the embarrassing Gold Cup loss to Jamaica in 2015—but he’ll surely have one eye on the challenge at the Azteca a few days later.
Klinsmann’s decision to take the U.S. to Mexico City for a 2012 friendly was curious, brilliant and set the tone for his ambitious administration. The Americans won for the first and only time at the imposing stadium on a late goal by Michael Orozco.
There’s been considerable roster turnover since then, however, and El Tri surely will approach a qualifier much differently then a mid-cycle friendly.
Mexico was unfortunate to have to settle for a 0-0 draw there in the 2013 qualifier between the sides, which it dominated.
Sept. 1 vs. Costa Rica; Sept. 5 at Honduras
The European seasons will have just gotten underway as the U.S. faces off against the two Central American powers. Sandwiched between trips to Mexico and Honduras, the Costa Rica game will be big for the U.S. For all the trouble Los Ticos have posed on the road, they’ve been far easier to tame on American soil. June’s 4-0 Copa América Centenario rout lifted the U.S. to a 10-0-2 home record against Costa Rica in official competition over the past two decades.
Four years ago, a 2-1 Hex-opening setback in Honduras marked the first real low point of Klinsmann’s tenure. The Americans seemed unprepared for the opponent or conditions in San Pedro Sula and needed the ensuing SnowClasico triumph over Costa Rica and a lot of good fortune in Mexico City to turn their qualifying campaign around. Overall, however, the history isn’t as frightening. The U.S. won in San Pedro Sula in 2009, clinching its spot at the World Cup, and beat the Hondurans, 2-1, in a 2001 qualifier.
Oct. 6 vs. Panama; Oct. 10 at Trinidad & Tobago
Any ground lost in Honduras or Mexico City will have to be made up in October, when both MLS and European players should be fit and ready. The Americans recently have had some strange struggles against Panama on home soil, falling on penalty kicks in the 2015 Gold Cup bronze medal match, tying earlier in the tournament and losing a Gold Cup group stage game in 2011. However, the U.S. is 11-1-4 all-time against Los Canaleros and will be favored to take all three points.
If it comes down to the finale in Trinidad, comparisons with the famous 1989 game and Paul Caligiuri’s “Shot Heard Round the World” will be inevitable. The U.S. won that day, drew Trinidad, 0-0, last November in Port of Spain and hasn’t lost in the capital since 1994.
The U.S. has never needed a result in its Hexagonal finale. That’s another qualifying tradition Klinsmann would love to see continue.