The last time the U.S. men's national team faced the long-shot scenario, things didn't work out so well.
The events of October 2017 are well-documented and have been dissected ad nauseam over the last four-plus years. The failure to qualify for the World Cup was very much a foundational issue, but had a series of events not gone the way they did on Oct. 10—an American loss to Trinidad & Tobago, Panama and Honduras wins over Costa Rica and Mexico, respectively—then the U.S. would have still overcome all of those faults and not been eliminated from contention that night.
The long-shot scenario this time around, at least, is one the U.S. would happily welcome. Its 1–0 win over El Salvador on Thursday night, coupled with results elsewhere around the region, provided an express lane to Qatar that could see the U.S. wrap up its return to the World Cup before the final qualifying window. It's not the most likely scenario, but it is at least plausible—though it requires the U.S. to accomplish something it has yet to do in the previous three-match windows: win out.
The dream scenario of clinching a top-three finish before trips to notoriously difficult destinations in Mexico and Costa Rica two months from now starts with the U.S. going to first-place Canada and beating the surging neighbor to the north on Sunday. It then continues by returning home to Minnesota and topping a last-place Honduras side that has been reduced to playing spoiler.
That alone would make it almost a certainty—but not a complete mathematical certainty—that the U.S. will return to the World Cup after missing Russia 2018. But for it to happen next week, it also needs Panama to lose its next two matches (at home vs. Jamaica, at Mexico) and for Costa Rica to not exceed two points in its remaining two games (at Mexico, at Jamaica). That would put the U.S. 10 points clear of fourth place with three games to play (and nine points left up for grabs). When it comes to the baseline of qualifying for the World Cup, it doesn't matter where the U.S. finishes in Concacaf's top three. First-place bragging rights are great, but they come with the same automatic ticket as third place. It could potentially benefit the U.S., currently ranked 11th by FIFA, if it wound up topping the table, as it relates to results impacting the seeding for the World Cup draw, but that's getting even further ahead of ourselves.
You won't catch Gregg Berhalter or any U.S. player discussing or entertaining any of those permutations. Any mention about the March window and what potentially lies ahead if things don't go well now is met, understandably, by a "one game at a time" response, which is as cliché as much as it is perfectly logical. The U.S. can't get caught looking too far forward or taking other results for granted. That's how long-shot scenarios like those from 2017 enter the chat.
Thursday night's result resonated with a number of known truths about World Cup qualifying in Concacaf. The performance wasn't great—Berhalter and U.S. players lamented the missed chances and slow start—but the points are all that ultimately matter. As Berhalter, who was also critical of some other aspects of his side's showing, said following the match, “The big picture of this game is we're still in very good position in World Cup qualifying, the three points were vital at home, and we achieved that.”
The U.S.'s recurring theme of a slow start followed by a more emphatic second half unfolded again (the U.S. has now failed to score in the first half of seven of its nine qualifying matches), while some questions surrounding individual performance and ruthlessness in the final third persist. But the way the table is breaking, the runway for a flight to Qatar—in November, not the less-desirable one in June for an intercontinental playoff that is reserved for Concacaf's fourth-place finisher—is clearing for takeoff.
“We’re definitely one step closer,” said Antonee Robinson, Thursday's goalscorer. “We’re really happy to get the win. ... We’re one step closer to our goal of qualifying for the World Cup.”
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