HARRISON, N.J. — Let’s be clear: The U.S. men’s national team does not deserve to make it to World Cup 2018 based on the way it has played in the CONCACAF Hexagonal qualifying tournament. Not after the U.S.’s brutal 2-0 loss to Costa Rica on Friday, the second home defeat of a Hex in which the U.S. (with just two wins in seven games) has looked decidedly ordinary, a team that is by no means a giant of CONCACAF.
But deserving to reach a World Cup is not the same thing as actually qualifying for one. And the insanely forgiving format of CONCACAF qualifying means the U.S. is still in a pretty good position to reach Russia 2018. It does mean that the remaining three games—at Honduras on Tuesday and against Panama and at Trinidad and Tobago in October—will add some real pressure to test a team that fell flat on its face on Friday in a game it expected to win.
“We’re not worried” about missing the World Cup, U.S. captain Michael Bradley said after Friday’s game. “This is where we are at the moment. The likelihood is it’s going to go down to the wire. And that can’t faze anybody. That can’t scare us. Costa Rica and Mexico are gone. Us and Panama and Honduras play a few games, and at the end one will go to the World Cup, one will go to the playoff [against Asia’s fifth-place team] and one will be out.”
After Friday’s games, the U.S. (eight points) is in third place based on goal difference (+1), with Honduras in fourth (eight points, -7) and Panama in fifth (seven points, -1). The third-place team will qualify automatically for the World Cup, with the fourth-place team going into a playoff against Asia’s fifth-place team. The CONCACAF fifth-place team will be out of luck.
The 2017 aura that had surrounded U.S. coach Bruce Arena, who had been undefeated in 14 games, vaporized against Costa Rica on Friday night. Even Arena acknowledged that his team was “outplayed and outcoached.” When asked if his U.S. players have the character to respond to a bigger-than-expected qualification challenge, Arena responded with his own question. “We’re going to find that out, aren’t we?” he said. “You hate to look at one game and not look at the whole. Tonight was not our night. We didn’t play well, and we still have three games left in the competition … We’re still in position to qualify for the World Cup.”
In the big picture, though, the U.S.’s poor performance in this Hexagonal—which has been in place since qualifying for World Cup ‘98—has been unprecedented. Before the two home losses in this Hex, the U.S. had suffered only one defeat in the previous 50 home World Cup qualifiers. Not losing at home in games that matter used to be a given. That just isn’t the case anymore, and you can be certain it will be a while before U.S. Soccer schedules any USMNT qualifiers in Columbus or the New York City area (where the two losses in this Hex took place).
But the fact remains that it wasn’t the location’s faults that the U.S. lost these two games. The U.S. wasn’t sharp enough against Costa Rica, didn’t have enough quality in the opposing penalty box and made too many errors at the defensive end that any decent international team—and Costa Rica most certainly is one—will punish. Costa Rica doesn’t surprise you with its gameplan, but Los Ticos make it work. They deserve to qualify for Russia.
The U.S.? That’s another story. But it’s clear that Tuesday’s game at Honduras has suddenly become a lot more important. Arena responded affirmatively when asked if Friday’s loss would change his approach to the Honduras game.
“I think so,” he said. “But we’ll take a day to reflect on this and come up with a plan. Certainly by Sunday or Monday. But clearly, walking away without any points tonight is very disappointing.”
Keep in mind, the U.S. did slam Honduras 6-0 at home in March–and that goal differential could come into play should the Hex go down to the wire.
“Now the approach is we’re going to go down there with the mentality to win the game,” Bradley said. “We’re going to be aggressive and make sure we have 11 guys on the field who are ready to give everything. And we will. If at the end of 90 minutes we’re in a position where we take one point, then we’ll take that, and then everything is still in our own hands the last two games.”
It would be easy to say that even if the U.S. qualifies for the World Cup, the team’s form during the Hex would suggest an early Russian exit is in the offing. But we have plenty of evidence to show that how you play in qualifying has nothing to do with how you play at the World Cup itself. Arena’s team struggled to qualify for World Cup 2002 and then reached the quarterfinals. And then Arena’s Americans breezed through qualifying for World Cup 2006, only to lay an egg in Germany.
Qualifying for the World Cup is pass/fail, as Bradley noted earlier this week. CONCACAF sets a low bar, making it exceedingly hard to fail. But the U.S. is a lot closer to that “/” line than anyone would have ever expected. A giant test awaits on Tuesday in San Pedro Sula.
As Bradley said: “We’ve got three games to play like our lives depend on it.”