- The best week of the World Cup qualifying cycle is upon us, so let's take stock of which powers are in danger and which dramatic storylines could unfold.
ORLANDO, Florida — Of all the weeks in the four-year cycle of qualifying for the men’s World Cup, this week is my favorite, providing the most inspiring, heartbreaking and dramatic moments as nations around the globe punch their tickets and have their hopes dashed for taking part in the world’s greatest sporting event.
And this time around, for a change, that pit-in-your-stomach angst belongs to the United States, too.
On Friday night, in the ninth of 10 games in its regional World Cup qualifying tournament, the U.S. will face Panama in the USMNT’s most important game since the World Cup 2014 Round of 16 loss to Belgium. What’s at stake? Plenty. According to ESPN’s brilliant stats man, Paul Carr, a home victory would give the U.S. a 93% chance of qualifying for Russia 2018; a tie would reduce the U.S.’s chances to 62%; and a defeat would bring them down to 44%.
Currently, the U.S.’s World Cup qualifying chances are 83%—or about what New York Times data analysts said Hillary Clinton’s chances were of winning the 2016 presidential election.
We’ll get into what’s ailing the USMNT and what it would mean for the U.S. to miss a World Cup as we get closer to Friday’s game (7:35 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision). But suffice it to say that over the next week—World Cup qualifying’s version of Judgment Week—U.S. fans will join their brethren in countries around the world on the edge of their seats.
As of now, eight of the 32 nations that will be competing at the World Cup have already qualified: Russia (as host), Brazil, Belgium, Mexico, Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia. But by the end of next Tuesday, at least 13 more World Cup berths will be determined (eight in Europe, three in South America and two in CONCACAF) with more spots likely being clinched in Africa.
What kind of drama have we seen in previous Judgment Weeks—and what might we see this time around? Let’s break it down:
2013: SAN ZUSI SAVES MEXICO
This will forever be known as the night the United States saved archrival Mexico’s World Cup hopes. The U.S., having already qualified for Brazil 2014, didn’t need to do anything against Panama in the final game of the Hexagonal qualifying tournament. In the 92nd minute, the U.S. was losing 2-1, and in that moment Mexico was out of the World Cup and Panama was still alive for the first World Cup bid in its history and heading to the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand.
Then the U.S.’s Graham Zusi scored for the U.S. in stoppage time, tying the game. Suddenly it was Mexico whose World Cup hopes were still alive—El Tri would go on to qualify and reach the Round of 16—and heartbroken Panama that was eliminated.
The memories from that night are indelible. Panama TV host David Samudio Garay recalled the story of his anguished call from that moment not long ago, and the combined celebration/rant by the Mexican TV commentators at the same moment (Mexico was losing its game at the same time) is one of the most remarkable calls in World Cup qualifying history.
For the U.S., it was an impressive display of professionalism—how many countries would help their archrival survive for the World Cup if they didn’t have to?—and Zusi earned the nickname San Zusi (Saint Zusi) from appreciative Mexico fans forever after.
2009: BORNSTEIN NAMED HONORARY HONDURAN CITIZEN
On the final matchday of qualifying for World Cup 2010, the U.S. was already in and facing an angst-ridden Costa Rica at Washington D.C.’s RFK Stadium. In the 95th minute(!), Costa Rica was leading the U.S. 2-1, and in that moment the Ticos were seconds away from qualifying for World Cup 2010—and forcing Honduras into an intercontinental playoff against Uruguay.
But then the U.S.’s Jonathan Bornstein scored against Costa Rica to tie the game and turn the tables. Costa Rica had to play Uruguay (and ended up missing the World Cup), while Hondurans went absolutely mental over qualifying for their first World Cup since 1982. Bornstein was hailed as a hero in Honduras and will never have to buy a drink there in his lifetime.
(Side note: That week in 2009 was an emotional whipsaw for USA fans, too. The U.S. qualified for the World Cup on Matchday 9 in Honduras. But then rising star forward Charlie Davies was seriously injured in a tragic car accident in Washington, D.C., that killed another passenger, Ashley Roberta. Then in the game against Costa Rica, Oguchi Onyewu—a defensive force who was in his first season at AC Milan—suffered a serious knee injury. Davies and Onyewu would never be the same players, though it’s important to note the positive side of the story: They did return to playing and both are members now of the Philadelphia Union.)
What sort of drama could happen during Judgment Week 2017? The possibilities are rich with emotion and irony. What if Mexico (already qualified) gets the chance to pay the U.S. back for San Zusi and save the Americans’ World Cup hopes? Would El Tri do it? We may find out. What if Panama gets some revenge on the U.S. for San Zusi by beating or tying the U.S. (with Zusi on the roster) on Friday night?
And what if Trinidad and Tobago (already eliminated) exacts some cosmic payback from the U.S. on Tuesday by eliminating the U.S. from World Cup 2018? After all, in 1989 it was the U.S. that broke Trinidadian hearts by winning 1-0 in the final qualifying game to send the Americans to their first World Cup since 1950 and prevent Trinidad from reaching its first World Cup.
The ingredients for fantastic finishes are in place all over the world this week, and not just involving the United States. In Asia, war-ravaged Syria has remarkably managed to reach a two-game playoff against Australia, the winner of which will face CONCACAF’s fourth-place team for a World Cup berth. Could you imagine the U.S. going up against Syria for a spot in Russia?
Or could you imagine a World Cup without Lionel Messi? That’s a real possibility in a wild South American tournament, where the top of the standings heading into the final two games this week looks like this:
|x- 1. Brazil||37 points||+27 Goal Differential||at Bolivia, vs. Chile|
|2. Uruguay||27 points||+10||at Venezuela, vs. Bolivia|
|3. Colombia||26 points||+3||vs. Paraguay, at Peru|
|4. Peru||24 points||+1 (26 goals scored)||at Argentina, vs. Colombia|
|5. Argentina||24 points||+1 (16)||vs. Peru, at Ecuador|
|6. Chile||23 points||+1 (24)||vs. Ecuador, at Brazil|
|7. Paraguay||21 points||-6||at Colombia, vs. Venezuela|
|8. Ecuador||20 points||0||at Chile, vs. Argentina|
x - Clinched World Cup berth
Only the top four South American finishers will qualify automatically for Russia, with the fifth-place team going to an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand. Argentina has taken the intriguing step of staging Thursday’s giant home qualifier against upstart Peru at the legendary Boca Juniors stadium La Bombonera. The Peruvians haven’t qualified for a World Cup since 1982 and have been on a terrific run of form.
Argentina is in real trouble, as is Chile, the two-time defending Copa América champion which has gone from a hipster pick to win World Cup 2018 to a predicament where, as it stands, the Chileans wouldn’t even qualify.
In Europe, another powerhouse is in serious danger: The Netherlands finds itself in third place of Group A behind France and Sweden and facing elimination if it can’t make up a three-point deficit to the Swedes in the last two games. (The Dutch do host Sweden on Tuesday but may need to win that game by a lot of goals to have a chance.)
UEFA Group I is also poised on a knife’s edge, with four teams in the running for one automatic bid and one spot in November’s UEFA playoffs. Croatia and Iceland are level on 16 points, with the former having a goal differential edge (+9 to +4), while Turkey and Ukraine are level on 14 points and both boast a +4 goal differential.
Every point counts, and this week’s games include Turkey-Iceland and Ukraine-Croatia, which means things could get nuts.
To ratchet up the intrigue even more, group finales will all kick off at the same time in UEFA (on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday), in South America (at 7:30 p.m. ET on Tuesday) and in CONCACAF (at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday).
With so much at stake at the same time, it’s a shame that a global FIFA TV channel doesn’t exist where you could follow all the insanity on Sunday, Monday and especially Tuesday as it happens. I’d pay good money to watch that channel.