HARRISON, N.J. — The faces were glum, as is mandatory when you’ve lost a key World Cup qualifier at home. Filing out of the locker room at Red Bull Arena, the Americans looked dejected after a second loss to Costa Rica in two matchups as they seek to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup.
On Friday, Mexico did qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. And Costa Rica practically did the same. With three games to go, the Ticos are all but assured of their spot, now six points clear of the Americans with only nine points left to be had. And that is so because they beat the Americans 2-0 in New Jersey.
That is to say that only one automatic berth remains in the CONCACAF region, and that the U.S. is far from guaranteed to snag it with three games to play. It currently sits in third place but is tied with Honduras on eight points, staying ahead on account of goal difference. Panama, meanwhile, lags behind by a lone point.
Of those three teams, only one will book direct passage to Russia. One will reach a playoff with Asia’s fifth-placed team. And one will miss out altogether. Just as last-placed Trinidad and Tobago likely will.
Here’s the good news. In its final games, the U.S. plays all three of the teams below it. Honduras away, on Tuesday. And then Panama in Orlando on Oct. 6 and T&T away on Oct. 10. Win all of those games, and the U.S. qualifies for Russia. Its fate, then, is in its own hands.
As for the bad, the Yanks were outmaneuvered by Costa Rica. And this ugly dent in their qualifying hopes hurt particularly badly because it seemed that after two losses to open this final round, things had been turned around and gone a great deal better under Bruce Arena — recalled to the job after a decade away to put out the fire on Jurgen Klinsmann’s flaming wreckage.
The hurt is psychological as much as practical, surely diminishing confidence as well as the state of the U.S. in the standings.
“On the night, we didn’t make any plays that mattered,” Arena said, in a harsh assessment of the game. “We were probably outplayed in most positions on the field. We made some critical errors. Didn’t capitalize on some potential opportunities.”
But for all the hand-wringing that its fans and the commentariat will do over the long weekend before the U.S. plays its next qualifier in San Pedro Sula, there’s a remarkable sense of calm among the team’s coach and seasoned leaders. They’re acutely aware that the team is possibly in trouble again, right after clambering its way out of the last crisis. But also that the core has been through this sort of thing several times before. At one point during every qualifying cycle, things go badly and the U.S. is under the gun. It always makes it through, in the end.
It’s just that this time, it’s been under the gun not once but twice.
“Qualifying has been in jeopardy since last year,” Arena said. “It’s going to be a battle.”
By which Arena means that little has changed inasmuch as there was always going to be an awful lot left to do after those two opening World Cup qualifying losses.
Captain Michael Bradley was pragmatic as ever. “There’s three games to go, nine points on the table, everything still to play for,” he said. “It’s all still in our hands and we’re ready to go down to the wire to get ourselves into the World Cup.”
“I’m not worried,” added Bradley. “This is our reality at the moment. The likelihood is that it’s going to go down to the wire. That can’t faze anybody. That can’t scare us. There’s no time to feel sorry for ourselves, and we’re not. We’ve got three games to play like our lives depend on it. And we will.”
Veteran goalkeeper Tim Howard echoed much the same sentiments. “It puts more pressure on us but we’re right in the thick of it,” he said of the loss. “We just forget about it, have a few beers, do some regen[eration] tomorrow. We’re all professionals. We’re big boys. We’ll figure it out.”
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.