Editorial (October 4, 2017) – 11 months ago, it all began in such disastrous and gut-wrenching fashion for the USMNT.
First came the inevitable ending of the “Dos A Cero” narrative in Columbus after 15 years as Mexico upended the US “Dos A Uno.” Four days later, the Yanks traveled to Costa Rica and suffered their worst World Cup qualifying shutout loss since 1957, a 4-0 drubbing at the hands of the Ticos.
Those two setbacks precipitated change, with U.S. Soccer firing Jurgen Klinsmann and bringing in Bruce Arena. And credit the latter for stabilizing things in his second stint as USMNT boss. The Stars and Stripes proceeded to go undefeated in Arena’s first 14 games in charge, winning the Gold Cup and reviving their qualification campaign in the process.
Won't back down. We've come too far.
Despite Topsy-Turvy Hex, USMNT Still Controls World Cup Destiny
But the last two games of the Hex certainly qualify as a speed bump on the road to Russia. The US had a legit opportunity for revenge at Red Bull Arena against Costa Rica on September 1st. Instead, a pro-Tico crowd saw the US get countered to death in a 2-0 loss. And if not for a late Bobby Wood equalizer in Honduras, speed bump may have given way to flat tire inducing pothole.
Through it all, the US currently finds itself fourth in the Hex standings, behind the very Panama team they play in Orlando on Friday. If that somehow held up at the conclusion of these two forthcoming fixtures, it wouldn’t be complete catastrophe. But it would result in a two-leg playoff with either Australia or Syria for one of the final spots in Russia.
Get Three to Finish Top Three
The group of players Arena called in for these two crucial qualifiers don’t want to let it come to that. They know full well this side is much better than needing to sneak into the World Cup via intercontinental playoff. However, CONCACAF is as deep as it’s ever been and that means the US’ road to world football’s quadrennial festival is no longer a cakewalk.
That reality isn’t lost on the US ahead of two games against two beatable foes on paper. Despite never suffering a loss to Panama or Trinidad and Tobago in World Cup Qualifying, both will put up a fight. Los Canaleros desperately want to make the World Cup for the first time ever. Meanwhile, the Soca Warriors would like nothing more than to play spoiler nearly 28 years to the day after the “shot heard round the world.”
Having said all this, expectations are for the Stars and Stripes to wrest away the full six points from these two matches. It’s an attainable task against Panama at home and in the Caribbean against a T&T side who’ve won one of eight qualifiers this round. With the difficulty of the Hex schedule significantly front-loaded this cycle, there are no excuses with respect to running the table from here on out.
“(What’s happened up to this point) sets us up for these last two games in terms of everything being there for us,” captain Michael Bradley emphasized. “(We’re) controlling our own destiny, knowing that whatever else happens, we have 180 minutes to make sure that we’re going to Russia.”
Holding Serve Against Beatable Opposition to Clinch
Those first 90 will pose a challenge against a Panama team that’s caused issues for the US recently. Despite the overall dominance in the all-time series, the Yanks have drawn the previous four. It included a tie through regulation and a loss via penalty kicks in the third place game of the 2015 Gold Cup. And of course, the last qualifier between the two saw them play to a 1-1 stalemate in Panama City.
Then there’s Tuesday’s finale against Trinidad and Tobago. These two sides are quite familiar with one another during this cycle, having already played three times (they were drawn into the same group during the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying). The US are 2-0-1 in those encounters, with both wins coming by a combined score of 6-0. In 14 games dating back to 1996, the Soca Warriors have a mere two goals against the US.
All of this points to a favorable outcome when all’s said and done in less than a week’s time. It’s a stark contrast to the beginning of the year, when the US’ seven-time qualification streak seemed in peril. The only thing that remains is for the Stars and Stripes to adhere to expectations and get things done to once and for all book their spot in next year’s World Cup.
“We control our own destiny,” said Orlando native Graham Zusi. “We don’t have to worry about other results, necessarily. If we take care our business, then we’ll be on our way to Russia.”