It’s been a long time since America truly needed a World Cup Bubble Watch. A looooooong time. But the need gradually arose as frustration and concern set in Friday night during the U.S. men’s national team’s 2-0 World Cup qualifying loss to Costa Rica.
As our Leander Schaerlaeckens wrote from Red Bull Arena, “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.”
And because it has, it sits squarely on the bubble as it flies to San Pedro Sula, one of the most dangerous cities in the world, and a site of great peril to American World Cup hopes on Tuesday.
But the U.S. isn’t the only favorite in danger of missing out on next summer’s tournament. In fact, it’s in definitively better shape than at least seven notable 2014 World Cup participants.
With one of two full rounds of qualifiers during the September international break in the books, it’s time to reset the qualifying picture. It’s time for the second edition of World Cup Bubble Watch.
Since we last spoke, Japan and Mexico have officially joined Brazil and Iran in Russia. Nine more nations have been eliminated. That means the field has been whittled down to 80 teams for 27 available spots. And by our count, it’s really 47 teams for 22 spots Here’s how the picture looks as Saturday flips to Sunday:
Bold indicates upward movement. Italics indicate downward movement.
Already qualified (5): Russia (host), Brazil, Iran, Japan, Mexico
Making travel reservations (5): Germany, Belgium, France, Spain, Costa Rica
Feeling optimistic (13): Switzerland, Portugal, Poland, Italy, England, Colombia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, South Korea, Australia
On the bubble (17): Sweden, Northern Ireland, Serbia, Ireland, Croatia, Ukraine, Slovakia, Paraguay, USA, Panama, Honduras, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, Uganda, Egypt, Saudi Arabia
Fretting (17): Netherlands, Bulgaria, Wales, Denmark, Montenegro, Greece, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Iceland, Turkey, Ecuador, Peru, Morocco, Senegal, South Africa, Uzbekistan, Syria, New Zealand
To the breakdown:
World Cup berths: 13 (plus host)
Structure: Nine groups of six. Each group winner qualifies directly. Eight best runners-up go into playoffs for final four spots.
Status: Seven of 10 group games have been played. Matchday 8 Sunday through Tuesday, Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Playoffs in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Russia (host)
Making travel reservations (4)
Germany — Mats Hummels beat the Czech Republic with an 88th-minute winner, Germany stayed perfect, and it can officially qualify with a win over Norway on Monday.
France — Les Blues stormed past the Netherlands, and shunned any hints of uncertainty. With a three-point lead in Group A and home fixtures against Luxembourg and Belarus remaining, they should top it with ease.
Belgium — Belgium spanked Gibraltar 9-0, as expected. But it’s making calls to travel agents mostly because of other Group H results. Its two main competitors picked up a combined one point, leaving the Red Devils six clear. More on those two competitors later.
Spain — Isco’s brace won the crunch clash atop Group G, and La Roja is packing its bags. Even if Spain were to lose one of its three remaining matches – vs. Liechtenstein, Albania and Israel – it would likely qualify on goal differential.
Feeling optimistic (5)
Switzerland and Portugal — Both took care of business, against the Faroe Islands and Andorra, respectively. Portugal remains three points back, but with a far superior goal differential, and with a home game against Switzerland on the final matchday.
Poland — Earlier this week, we wrote that the Poles could start booking hotels with a result at Denmark. They, uh … didn’t get that result. They got smashed, 4-0, and their lead atop Group E has been cut to three. Their schedule is favorable, and they can still afford to drop points, but the Denmark trouncing was eyebrow-raising.
England — Slovakia beat Slovenia, so despite the Three Lions’ 4-0 win in Malta, their Group F advantage holds at just two. The Slovaks visit Wembley on Monday. An England win would all but send it to the World Cup.
Italy — It’s almost certainly on to the playoffs for the Italians after a 3-0 drubbing in Madrid. At No. 12 in the FIFA rankings, Italy will be seeded for those playoffs, and has no reason to panic. But a nervy 180 minutes await.
On the bubble (7)
Sweden — The Swedes squandered a massive opportunity on Thursday. France’s thrashing of the Dutch gave them an opportunity to move six points clear of third place. But they dropped a wild game in Bulgaria, likely conceded the group to France, and slipped to within one poor result of missing the playoffs altogether. That final-matchday showdown in Amsterdam still looms.
Northern Ireland — Northern Ireland’s biggest result wasn’t its 3-0 victory in San Marino; it was Germany’s 2-1 defeat of the Czech Republic. Northern Ireland can clinch at least a playoff place with a result against the Czechs on Monday.
Serbia and Ireland — The Serbs took care of business against Moldova. The Irish … nope. They drew 1-1 in Georgia, and fell two points behind Serbia’s Group D-leading pace. Their saving grace, though, is a Tuesday date with Serbia in Dublin.
Slovakia — Slovakia distanced itself from the Group F pack with an 81st-minute (own goal) winner against Slovenia. Even a singular point from upcoming trips to England and Scotland should be sufficient for the playoffs. A win at Wembley could even put the Slovaks in position to qualify directly.
Ukraine — A buoyant 2-0 win over Turkey – aided by an assistant referee who failed to spot an offside call on the opener – sent Ukraine to the Group I summit. But …
Croatia — It’s no longer there after Croatia escaped from Kosovo with a 1-0 win 20 hours after the game initially kicked off. Torrential rain forced the abandonment of Saturday’s match. It was resumed Sunday, and remained 0-0 for over 70 minutes, but Domagoj Vida’s 74th-minute goal sent Croatia to the top of the group on 16 points. Ukraine has 14.
Bulgaria — Ivaylo Chochev’s 79th-minute winner vaulted Bulgaria from fourth place to within one point of the playoffs. The upcoming schedule – at Holland, home vs. France – is demanding, but the Bulgarians are very much in the mix.
Netherlands — Woof. That was bad. Not just the defeat, but the 4-0 scoreline, with two of the goals coming very late on. Those goals dug the Dutch an even deeper fourth-place ditch, because they may end up needing a tiebreaker to have a shot at the playoffs. The silver lining of a dreary situation is that they get cracks at both Sweden (second place) and Bulgaria (third) over the final three matchdays. But they’re in trouble.
Wales — Liverpool starlet Ben Woodburn, 17, came on for his international debut in the 69th minute Saturday. He then beat Austria with a 74th-minute belter, and put Wales two points behind Ireland for a playoff place. With Moldova and Georgia up next, the Welsh are threatening to leap back on to the bubble.
Denmark — Talk about clutch. Denmark needed three points against Group E leader Poland, and it got them in emphatic fashion. It might have been the single most important result of the round in Europe. Unfortunately, though, the Danes aren’t the only ones that made up ground in the group …
Montenegro — Montenegro actually bests Denmark for second place as things stand, but it concludes group play with matches against the Danes and Poland. In one sense, that’s an opportunity. In another, Montenegro’s road to the World Cup remains full of obstacles.
Greece and Bosnia and Herzegovina — It’s tough to decide which was worse: Greece’s 0-0 home draw vs. Estonia, or Bosnia’s deflating 3-2 defeat in Cyprus. The latter is probably more damaging, because it leaves Bosnia two points back of the Greeks for the playoff spot.
Iceland — The Euro 2016 darlings were the big losers of the day in a cramped Group I. They fell 1-0 to already-eliminated Finland with the top spot in the group begging. They’re by no means out of the running, but they really should be running in pole position right now.
Turkey — A 2-0 loss to Ukraine really stings.
Dreams fading (6): Slovenia, Scotland, Romania, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Austria
Still alive, but only technically (8): Belarus, Hungary, Norway, Azerbaijan, Albania, Israel, Estonia, Armenia
World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure: One group of 10. Top four qualify directly. Fifth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Oceania.
Status: 15 of 18 games have been played. Matchday 16 on Sept. 5, Matchday 17 on Oct. 5, Matchday 18 on Oct. 10. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Brazil
Feeling optimistic (4)
Colombia — A point in Venezuela will do the Colombians just fine after Chile, Uruguay and Argentina all failed to leapfrog them. None of the movement in CONMEBOL really concerned Colombia.
Uruguay — A 0-0 home draw with Argentina suited both teams. Even if Uruguay gets nothing from a Tuesday trip to Paraguay, its final two matches are against Bolivia and Venezuela, both of whom have already been eliminated.
Chile — It’s “squeaky bum time” for Chile after an agitating 3-0 home loss to Paraguay. Fans are on edge. Tension is perhaps more piercing than it should be – Chile remains in fourth place with Bolivia up next and Ecuador on tap in early October. But this is a mercurial team whose qualifying campaign could jolt any which way at any given time.
Argentina — The Argentinians have only scored 15 goals in 15 qualifiers, a disastrous tally that ranks second-to-last out of 10 teams. With their next two games at home against Venezuela and Peru, they should be fine. Then again, they should be a dynamic attacking outfit, and they’ve been anything but.
On the bubble (1)
Paraguay — Right back in the thick of it after the shock win in Chile. A -5 goal differential is not favorable, but a home match against Venezuela on the final matchday is. And honestly, a showdown with wounded Uruguay on Tuesday might be as well.
Peru — Suddenly in sixth and just two points back of the playoff place. But the trio of remaining games is tough: at Ecuador, at Argentina, vs. Colombia.
Ecuador — Nobody expected Ecuador to get anything out of its journey to Brazil. But nobody expected the Ecuadorians to fall into eighth place as a result either. They dip off the bubble and into “Fretting” territory because of wins for Paraguay and Peru, not by any fault of their own.
World Cup berths: 3.5
Structure (current round only): One group of six. Top three qualify directly. Fourth goes to intercontinental playoff vs. Asia.
Status: Seven of 10 “Hex” games have been played. Matchday 8 on Tuesday, Matchdays 9 and 10 in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Mexico
Making travel reservations (1)
Costa Rica — A first-ever qualifying win on American soil moved the Ticos six points clear of third (and fourth) place. They would clinch a spot in Russia with a victory over Mexico on Tuesday.
On the bubble (3)
USA — We’ll break down scenarios and rooting interests closer to the Honduras match, but the U.S. is still in decent shape. The two most important things working in its favor are: 1. Remaining fixtures, which include a home match against fifth-place Panama and a trip to last-place Trinidad and Tobago; and 2. The forgiving nature of the Hex. Even if the U.S. finishes fourth, it’d be favored against whoever emerges from Asia. A draw in Honduras is a totally acceptable result.
Honduras — A win over T&T and the impending visit from the Americans have Honduras optimistic. With a win over the Yanks, it would be in fantastic shape. Its final two matches, however, are at Costa Rica and vs. Mexico.
Panama — A couple glorious chances late on represent a missed opportunity at Mexico, but the Panamanians remain in the mix. There are three teams for one-and-a-half spots, and Panama is the third of the three.
Dreams fading (1): Trinidad and Tobago
World Cup berths: 5
Structure (current round only): Five groups of four. Winners qualify directly.
Status: Three of six games have been played. Matchday 4 Sunday through Tuesday, Matchday 5 in October, Matchday 6 in November.
Table | Fixtures
Feeling optimistic (2)
Nigeria — The Nigerians bulldozed Cameroon, and not only lead the Group of Death by five points, but lead fellow 2014 World Cup participants Cameroon and Algeria by seven and eight, respectively. And that’s with only three games remaining. One more win could be enough.
Ivory Coast — A 3-0 dispatching of Gabon on the road – a result that should be replicated in three day’s time at home – keeps the Ivorians in control in Group C.
On the bubble (5)
Uganda and Egypt — A surprising 1-0 defeat in Uganda bumped Egypt off the top of Group E. But the Egyptians can and should get revenge on Tuesday in Alexandria. And the other African giant in the group, Ghana, slumped to a 1-1 home draw against Gabon, all but playing itself out of contention. So it’s more or less a two-team battle.
Democratic Republic of Congo and Tunisia — Tunisia won the first meeting between the two on home soil. Congo DR hosts the rematch Tuesday. A result would seemingly set the Tunisians on their way, but even a point won’t be easy to come by.
Burkina Faso — Held Senegal on the road, and sits atop Group D at the midway point.
Morocco — A 6-0 thrashing of Mali was huge, but an away victory over the Ivory Coast on the final matchday will likely be necessary.
South Africa and Senegal — Both squandered opportunities – South Africa in a loss to Cape Verde, and Senegal in a stalemate at home against Burkina Faso. They’re locked on four points, one behind Burkina Faso, one ahead of Cape Verde.
Dreams fading (7): Guinea, Zambia, Cameroon, Gabon, Mali, Cape Verde Islands, Ghana
Still alive, but only technically (3): Libya, Algeria, Republic of the Congo
World Cup berths: 4.5
Structure (current round only): Two six-team groups. Top two in each group qualify directly. Third-place teams advance to intracontinental playoff. Winner of playoff advances to continental playoff vs. CONCACAF.
Status: Nine of 10 games have been played. Matchday 10 is Tuesday. Intracontinental playoff in October. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
Already qualified: Iran, Japan
Feeling optimistic (2)
South Korea — Since we’re on to the final matchday… time for some scenarios! Korea can qualify with a win in Uzbekistan. It can also qualify with a draw and a Syria loss or draw at Iran. If it gets one point and Syria gets three, Syria would claim the second direct qualification spot and Korea would head to the playoff. If Korea loses, the playoff is the best-case outcome.
Australia — In Group B, the Australians are tied with Saudi Arabia in second place. But they play Thailand while the Saudis play Japan. Australia can qualify with a win and a Saudi Arabia loss or draw, OR by winning and making up two goals. In fact, if Australia wins 3-0 (or 4-1, etc.) and Saudi Arabia wins 1-0 (or 2-1, etc.), the two teams would be level on points, goal differential and goals for … in which case Australia would advance on head-to-head. If Australia somehow can’t beat Thailand, a draw sends it to at least the playoff, and even a loss probably does too.
On the bubble (1)
Saudi Arabia — Japan has nothing to play for, so three points are possible. But with Australia likely to crush lowly Thailand, a multi-goal win might be necessary.
Syria — Syria is a win and an Uzbekistan win (provided it’s not by three or more goals) or draw away from the World Cup. Let’s pause right there. That’s absolutely remarkable. The problem, though, is that the Syrians are up against an Iran side that hasn’t conceded a goal in 12 matches. But if Syria equals Uzbekistan’s result, it guarantees itself a playoff place.
Uzbekistan — The Uzbeks can only qualify directly with a win and a Syria loss or draw. They can make the playoff with a draw and a Syria loss.
Dreams fading (2): China, UAE
World Cup berths: 0.5
Structure (current round only): Two three-team groups. Winners advance to intracontinental playoff. Playoff winner advances to intercontinental playoff vs. South America.
Status: New Zealand and Solomon Islands won the two groups. Intracontinental playoff in progress. Intercontinental playoff in November.
Table | Fixtures
New Zealand — The Kiwis steamrolled the Solomon Islands, 6-1, in the first leg. They’ll soon head to the intercontinental playoff. But how do you like their chances against Argentina? Or Chile? Or Uruguay?
Still alive, but only technically (1): Solomon Islands
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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 email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.