The USA's draw for Honduras was very valuable in its quest to reach the World Cup. Here's what else the Americans need to do.
It was only a point, but it was one point that could make all the difference in the world for the U.S. men's national team.
Bobby Wood's 85th-minute equalizer salvaged a 1-1 draw in Honduras and kept the USA level on points with Los Catrachos after eight of the 10 matches in the CONCACAF Hexagonal have been played. Why does that matter? Well, by virtue of the USA's 6-0 win over Honduras in March, the Americans maintain a massive goal-differential edge over the Central American nation, so staying on even ground is important considering it's a three-team race for an automatic World Cup bid and a place in an intercontinental playoff for another.
A loss could have ramped up the pressure considerably on Bruce Arena's side, and while the pressure is still higher than anyone in a U.S. shirt would like, there is still a good likelihood of World Cup qualification.
With games against Panama and Trinidad & Tobago remaining, the USA is still in good shape, in theory. It'll be favored–and expected–to win against Panama on home soil and while road games are never easy in CONCACAF, Trinidad & Tobago is by far the least daunting of the five opponents in the round. Whereas the Hex started with a brutal combo of games against Mexico and at Costa Rica, it ends with a palatable duo. Simply put: If the USA, at this point, in 2017, can't get four or six points off Panama and Trinidad & Tobago, it doesn't deserve a trip to Russia.
|NATION||RECORD||GOALS FOR||GOALS AGAINST||GOAL DIFFERENTIAL|
|*Mexico||5-0-3 (18 points)||11||3||+8|
|Costa Rica||4-1-3 (15)||12||5||+7|
|Trinidad & Tobago||1-7-0 (3)||4||15||-11|
*Top three teams qualify automatically. Fourth plays Asia's fifth-place team in a two-legged playoff. Mexico is already through.
Here's how the USA can punch its ticket–both with and without help:
USA vs. Panama | Costa Rica vs. Honduras | Mexico vs. Trinidad & Tobago
The Americans cannot clinch a top-three place on this date, but it can all but cement a top-four one. A win over Panama and a Honduras loss at Costa Rica would put the USA three points clear of Honduras with an unassailable goal differential. The USA's match is slated to start 25 minutes before Honduras's, according to FIFA, so the Americans won't have the luxury of knowing Honduras's result ahead of time. It helps the USA that Costa Rica did not qualify Tuesday vs. Mexico and still needs a result to cement its place (though the scenarios for Costa Rica NOT qualifying are highly improbable).
A loss to Panama would not eliminate the Americans, but it would take all the control out of their hands AND clinch third place for Panama, meaning only the playoff route (vs. either Syria or Australia) would remain open. A draw (and a Honduras draw or loss) would require the USA to then need a win and a Panama loss or draw in the finales to take third.
Meanwhile, Mexico's match vs. Trinidad & Tobago is inconsequential to the race, though El Tri could factor in later...
Trinidad & Tobago vs. USA | Honduras vs. Mexico | Panama vs. Costa Rica
The USA has qualified for the World Cup in Trinidad & Tobago before, and it was a game-changer. Paul Caligiuri's 1989 goal set the stage for everything that's come since–massive growth, seven straight World Cup berths–and there's the possibility that either history can repeat itself, or the USA will be deserved a harsh dose of symmetry and miss out completely. A win–if it follows one over Panama–seals the deal and sends the USA through with an automatic bid. One after a draw vs. Panama would require the USA to need help from Costa Rica to get third place.
Costa Rica will likely have qualified already, which could impact who Los Ticos elect to start against Panama. Given everything between the USA and Costa Rica over the years, would it surprise anyone if Costa Rica went out of its way to NOT do the USA a solid and go with an experimental group? Nobody is alleging that Costa Rica would lay down and take a heavy loss, but there would be little incentive to go out and give its all.
Then there's Mexico. Oh, the irony. Four years after having its World Cup qualifying campaign saved by San Graham Zusi, Mexico may be called upon to return the favor. If the USA can't take care of its own business, a Mexico win over Honduras could at least help ensure a top-four finish for the Americans.
Nobody expected the USA's World Cup qualifying route to go down this intense of a road, but difficulties in qualifying have happened before and ultimately it won't matter as long as that ticket to Russia is punched.