Why the U.S. is still in good shape to qualify for the 2018 World Cup

Henry Bushnell

World Cup qualifying is never uneventful, and especially not for the U.S. men’s national team. CONCACAF is an adventure. Missteps are customary.

But the Hex isn’t often this eventful. Isn’t often this tense.

The U.S. has qualified for every World Cup since 1990. And since the “Hex” – the six-team, double-round-robin final round of CONCACAF qualifying – was instituted in 1998, the U.S. had lost three games in a cycle just once.

Friday’s 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica marked the second. It also sent a large portion of the American fan base spinning into nervous fits and hyperbolic rants. The U.S. remains in third place – the final direct qualification spot, one above an intercontinental playoff against an Asian nation – with three games remaining, but only just:

3. United States — 8 | +1
4. Honduras — 8 | -7
5. Panama — 7 | -1

And oh, it could get worse. The U.S. has never dropped four Hex games. But a fourth loss is a real possibility Tuesday in Honduras (5:30 ET, BeIN Sports, go90 app).

Yet even if the disaster scenario does materialize and the Yanks come away from the international break with zero points, qualification is still a very real possibility as well. It might even be expected. Let’s take a look at why.

The USMNT’s remaining schedule is relatively forgiving

If you were to rank the 10 games of the Hex by winnability, with No. 1 – Mexico away – being the toughest and No. 10 – Trinidad and Tobago at home – being the easiest, the U.S.’s three remaining fixtures — Honduras away, Panama home, Trinidad and Tobago away – would probably be No. 4, 9 and 8 on that list. Give or take a spot here or there if you’d like, but the point is that two of the three will offer Bruce Arena’s team golden opportunities for three points.

Furthermore, the other two teams in the mix for the final one-and-a-half World Cup spots have difficult schedules. On the final two matchdays Honduras plays at Costa Rica, which is No. 2 on the list, and home against Mexico, which is probably No. 3. Panama plays at the U.S. and home against Costa Rica.

Two or three of those matches might look more difficult on paper than they’ll be in reality, because Mexico has already qualified, and Costa Rica could secure its spot in Russia on Tuesday. But players still have their individual places to play for, and by the same token, Trinidad and Tobago should already be eliminated when the U.S. travels there on the final matchday.

Six points in those final two matches will be the expectation. They would also guarantee the U.S. at least fourth place and an intercontinental playoff, no matter what the Yanks do in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday.

The U.S. could officially qualify with two wins and a lot of help elsewhere. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

Scenarios

Let’s say the U.S. loses in Honduras and Panama beats Trinidad and Tobago. That would put the U.S. in fifth place, two points behind Panama and three behind Honduras. But the U.S. would jump right back into fourth with a win over Panama on Matchday 9, and possibly all the way back into third if Honduras loses in Costa Rica. In that case, all the U.S. would have to do on the final matchday would be to equal the better of Honduras’ and Panama’s results.

If the U.S. gets a point in Honduras, it would, at the very least, be in fourth place, level with the Hondurans but ahead by a goal differential margin of eight. (The U.S.’s 6-0 victory in the first meeting between the two teams looms large.) That would put the U.S. in position to guarantee itself at least fourth place with a win over Panama and a draw in Trinidad, regardless of results elsewhere. With those four points, it would qualify directly if Honduras doesn’t beat both Costa Rica and Mexico.

Finally, if the U.S. takes all three points off Honduras, a win over Panama in October would all but secure qualification. A draw or a loss against Panama would make things complicated, but the U.S. would still be in good shape.

The Asian playoff

If the U.S. finishes fourth, there are five possible opponents: Australia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Syria and Uzbekistan. That field of five will be chopped down to two by early Tuesday afternoon. Fortunately for the U.S., the three most likely candidates to emerge are Saudi Arabia, Syria and Uzbekistan. The Americans would be massive favorites against any of the three. So CONCACAF’s 3.5 World Cup bids are more like 3.75.

For more on where things stand on the final day of group play in Asia, our World Cup Bubble Watch has the full breakdown.

Other rooting interests

Aside from pulling for Panamanian and Honduran opponents, USMNT fans should root for Mexico against Costa Rica Tuesday night. If Mexico wins, Costa Rica will have to wait until October to officially qualify. And if the Ticos have yet to lock up a World Cup berth, can you really see them losing to Honduras in San Jose on Matchday 9? The longer Costa Rica has to wait for that berth, the better for the U.S.

In fact, American fans should be rooting for Mexico the rest of the way. A win over Costa Rica would be indirectly helpful. Same goes for a win over Trinidad and Tobago on Matchday 9 that could eliminate T&T. And then a win over Honduras on Matchday 10 would of course be directly beneficial. Reciprocation for the San Zusi game would be very much appreciated.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.