What if the USMNT had qualified for the 2018 FIFA World Cup?

Yahoo Sports
(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports)
(Michael Aguilar/Yahoo Sports)

With a loving nod to Marvel Comics, we at Yahoo Soccer decided to ask, “What If?”

In this issue: What if the USMNT had qualified for the 2018 World Cup?

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The fallout from the biggest calamity in American soccer history lingers to this day.

Nearly three years ago, the U.S. men’s national team’s went to Trinidad needing only a tie to secure an eighth consecutive World Cup trip, but instead were beaten by the already-eliminated Soca Warriors’ third string.

Last month, the hapless Carlos Cordeiro — who replaced Sunil Gulati as U.S. Soccer president following the qualifying failure — resigned halfway through a four-year term that was marked by utterly rudderless leadership. 

But what if the USMNT had qualified? There were real issues with the squad, to be sure. It was too old. Then-coach Bruce Arena suggested that he would’ve overhauled it almost entirely by Russia 2018, and youngsters Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie would surely have been promoted for the main event and sent into action alongside fellow teenager and U.S. headliner Christian Pulisic. 

Let’s be real, though. Given the dearth of proven performers in their primes, there’s no way the American talent pool at the time was deep enough to produce a roster capable of surviving the first round. 

Former USMNT coach Bruce Arena has suggested he would've overhauled the 2018 World Cup roster if the Americans had qualified. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Former USMNT coach Bruce Arena has suggested he would've overhauled the 2018 World Cup roster if the Americans had qualified. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Had the Americans won in Trinidad, they would’ve finished third in CONCACAF qualifying, and it’s a fair evaluation of the qualifying cycle of the whole. The actual spot went to Panama, which only clinched its maiden World Cup berth because of a “goal” that replays showed never entered the net (there was no VAR).

Los Canaleros were drawn into a group that included eventual semifinalists Belgium and England, as well as North African nation Tunisia. 

Belgium eliminated the Americans in the round of 16 at the 2014 World Cup, and the Red Devils had only gotten better over the next four years. No way the USMNT would’ve won its opener; Belgium routed Panama 3-0. 

Teams that fail to collect any points in their first match rarely advance. If they also lose their second game, then the third becomes moot. This is where the schedule would’ve doomed the U.S., as England was looking to secure its place in the knockout stage after narrowly defeating Tunisia.

The Three Lions have never beaten the Yanks at a World Cup, but England fielded its strongest team in decades in Russia. Harry Kane and Co. ended up trouncing Panama 6-1, and while the U.S. might have kept it closer, they were probably not going to win that one, either. Even a victory over Tunisia in the Group G finale wouldn’t have been enough for the Americans to advance for a third consecutive tournament.

But Pulisic’s face still would’ve been everywhere in the lead-up to the 2018 World Cup. The exposure would’ve made him a household name in his homeland today however the USMNT fared. 

Clint Dempsey, whose shot off the post in the dying moments in Couva could’ve changed the course of history, would’ve snapped a tie with Landon Donovan and become the USA’s all-time top scorer. (It ended up being Dempsey’s last game with the national team.)

DaMarcus Beasely could’ve been just the fourth player in history to appear in five World Cups.

And Gulati would still be leading U.S. Soccer, an organization that, under the new leadership of president and former Women’s World Cup winner Cindy Parlow Cone and CEO Will Wilson, only just now appears to be on a path toward true modernization and accountability.

Hey, sometimes even the darkest clouds have a silver lining.

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