SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — In the wake of the U.S.’s brutal 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica on Friday in World Cup qualifying, here are one man’s thoughts on the plane to Central America:
• *Will the U.S. make it to World Cup 2018?* That’s the whole point of this Hexagonal exercise, right? And while it may sound crazy, since the U.S. has won just two of seven games in this 10-game tournament, the Americans are still in a pretty good position to advance to Russia next summer.
The problem is that the U.S. has become like that procrastinating friend of yours who waits until the night before a college paper is due to write the darn thing. We’re getting close to the drop-dead deadline, and nobody wants to deal with the stress that comes with that.
Essentially, the U.S.’s World Cup hopes ride on a three-game competition against Honduras and Panama—from which one team will advance to the World Cup automatically, one team will move on to a two-game November playoff against Asia’s fifth-place team (think Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan or Syria) and one team will be eliminated altogether. Here’s how third through fifth place currently look in the Hex:
USA 8 +1
Honduras 8 -7
Panama 7 -1
How many points should the U.S. need to qualify automatically? You can never assume anything, of course, but I’m saying five points from the remaining three games (to get to 13) would likely do the trick. Let’s break down the remaining games for each team:
At Honduras. The U.S. has had some success at Honduras over the years, winning here in 2001 and ’09 but losing in ’13. Keep in mind, this is the same Catrachos team that lost 6-0 to the U.S. in March. Still, this isn’t a true “must-win” game since the U.S. would still be alive for the World Cup if it didn’t win. Conservative prediction: One point.
Panama. This is the linchpin. If you can’t win this game at home—and the U.S. has already lost twice at home in this Hex—you don’t deserve to go to the World Cup. Plus, this game in Orlando is important not just to gain points but to keep Panama, which will likely be the U.S.’s closest competition, from gaining points. Prediction: Three points.
At Trinidad and Tobago. T&T is the worst team in the group and has lost six of seven Hex games. The U.S. got a qualifying win there in 2009 but tied in Port of Spain in the semifinal round in 2015. There’s lots of history, of course: In 1989, the U.S. had to win the final qualifying game there to clinch a berth in its first World Cup since 1950, and Paul Caligiuri’s goal did just that, crushing the Italia 1990 dreams of the Trinis. The hosts would like nothing more than to return the favor 28 years later. Conservative prediction: One point.
USA. Given that Honduras has to face group leaders Costa Rica and Mexico in its last two games, getting three points at home against the U.S. is imperative. But they’ll be facing a highly motivated U.S. team in what is expected to be hot and rainy conditions. Prediction: One point.
At Costa Rica. The host Ticos have all but clinched a berth to Russia, so there will be some questions about the roster that comes in for this game as well as how motivated Costa Rica will be. But it’s hard to think the Ticos will mail it in at home, and they’re a significantly better team than Honduras. Prediction: One point.
Mexico. *El Tri* has already booked a ticket to Russia. Remember what happened in 2013, when the U.S.’s Graham Zusi scored a late goal in Panama that saved Mexico from World Cup elimination (even though the U.S. had already qualified)? Would Mexico do the same thing for the United States? We may find out. My sense: Mexico may use its B-team, but those players will be trying to impress coach Juan Carlos Osorio and won’t back down. Prediction: One point.
Trinidad and Tobago. Fully expecting a Panama win at home over the group bottom-feeders. Prediction: Three points.
At USA. Even a point in Orlando would be huge for Panama, but that’s the game where the U.S. has to be firing on all cylinders. Prediction: Zero points.
Costa Rica. Panama has wet the bed at home before—see 2013—but Costa Rica will be through to Russia, and it says here that Panama will get the win. Prediction: Three points.
If all the above predictions take place, here’s how it would look:
Clearly, goal-difference could come into play, and the U.S. has a slight advantage right now over Panama and Honduras. If you’re the U.S., a home victory over Panama in October is the key. If that happens, then getting two points out of the trips to Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago should be enough to survive—though a win in one of those away games would be even better.
With anything less than five points out of the next three games, the U.S. may well be looking at a November playoff in Asia—or even the doomsday scenario of being eliminated altogether.
Still, let’s say it together now: CONCACAF’s qualifying tournament for the World Cup is insanely forgiving. Mexico won just two of 10 Hex games in 2013—and still made the World Cup. The U.S. has won just two of seven hex games in this cycle—and is still a good bet to qualify. I can’t help but think of Bob Bradley’s Egypt team, which won seven of eight qualifiers for World Cup 2014 but still failed to make it to Brazil.
• *Opponents are focusing on defending Christian Pulisic.* Only a miraculous second-half save by Costa Rica’s Keylor Navas kept the young American star from scoring Friday, but it was also the second straight qualifier that a U.S. foe designed a game plan to stop Pulisic and prevented him from scoring or creating any goals. “He had a tough game today, and obviously they paid a lot of attention to him,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said of Pulisic on Friday night. “You could see early in the game they always sent a second player to him. I think he got a little frustrated. They just defended very well against him.”
Pulisic hasn’t been targeted for physical abuse as much in the last two games as he was by Panama in March, but the U.S. has to provide enough other attacking threats to make teams pay if they’re going to send two guys after Pulisic anytime he touches the ball.
• *What kind of lineup might Arena go with?* Don’t expect the seven changes Arena made between the two qualifiers in June. That was a direct result of even less recovery time than usual between games, which were both at altitude. But here’s one man’s guess at the USA XI:
Goalkeeper: Arena chose to use Brad Guzan in Mexico City in June after going with Tim Howard in the previous game. Arena said at the time that his decision was connected to Howard’s increased recovery time needed after his injury late last year. I’d suspect that thinking could influence Arena to start Guzan more than what Howard did to contribute to Costa Rica’s first goal on Friday. Predicted starter: Guzan.
Back line: Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream had a subpar game in the central defense against Costa Rica. I could easily see Matt Besler coming in for Ream, but Cameron is the main organizer on the back line and has plenty of experience in these situations. Graham Zusi seems likely to start again at right back, and it’s a toss-up between Jorge Villafaña and DaMarcus Beasley at left back. Predicted starters: Zusi-Cameron-Besler-Beasley.
Midfield: In tougher games at the World Cup and in CONCACAF on the road, it seems like a 4-2-3-1 is a better way to go, offering both stability and promise in the attack—with Pulisic playing a central attacking position where he has been good for the national team. It makes even more sense with Jozy Altidore’s yellow-card suspension. If Arena goes with a 4-2-3-1, Kelly Acosta and Michael Bradley would likely be the 2, while Darlington Nagbe, Pulisic and Alejandro Bedoya or Fabian Johnson could be in the line of 3. Johnson didn’t appear to be at full strength or in-form Friday. Predicted starters: Acosta-Bradley, Nagbe-Pulisic-Bedoya.
Front line: With Altidore suspended, I’d like to see Bobby Wood get a chance to be a lone forward who can stretch the defense. Clint Dempsey and Jordan Morris deserve consideration too, especially Dempsey given his experience and ability to produce something out of nothing. Predicted starter: Wood.