Quick question, casual reader, human being with far more on his/her mind than international soccer: How's the USMNT doing? You know that the World Cup is next year, you know it's in Russia, you know that's vaguely terrifying. But you're assuming the United States is going to make it, right? After all, they haven't missed the World Cup since 1990. But as for the actual status of their qualifying attempt, well, the details are probably a little hazy.
It is perfectly reasonable for you to not be up on this. The first game of the Hexagonal -- CONCACAF's qualifying tournament for the 2018 World Cup -- was literally three days after the presidential election, and if you're anything like me, you were barely able to eat lunch the rest of that week, let alone watch soccer. (The game was against Mexico, no less.) It has come up on us pretty fast.
Well, on Thursday night, the USMNT reaches the halfway point of Hexagonal qualifying with a game against Trinidad and Tobago, at 8 p.m. ET, in Denver on FS1. The team plays again on Sunday, this time in Mexico. There are only four qualifying matches to go after this weekend. This is getting serious.
So, casual reader, dear friend, let's get you up to speed. Here's a USMNT World Cup Qualifying Primer FAQ, so you'll be completely ready for the games Thursday, Sunday and in the weeks to come. It's time to start being hipster patriots again.
So how does qualifying work?
The Hexagonal has six teams, which is why it's a hexagonal. Everybody plays a home-and-home series against every other team in the Hex, and when it's over, the top three teams advance. The fourth-place team will then play a home-and-home against the fifth-place team from the Asian Football Confederation (right now, looking like it'll be Uzbekistan, Australia, or South Korea) in November of this year to determine who gets the final spot in the World Cup. Fifth and sixth places go home.
So what are the standings so far?
Remember, you get three points for a win and one for a draw. So four games in, here's where we stand:
Costa Rica 7
Trinidad and Tobago 3
Whoa. That's terrible. We're tied for fourth?
Yes, though a lot of that is from how this qualifyier started, back when you were hiding under your desk for that week after the election. That first Friday game, against Mexico? A crushing 2-1 loss, particularly gut-wrenching because it was in Columbus, Ohio, where the U.S. is used to its regular dos a cero wipeouts of the Mexican team. It got even worse four days later, when Costa Rica routed USMNT at home, 4-0. This put the USA in last place, where it would have to sit idle for four months.
Is that what got Jurgen Klinsmann fired?
Yep. USSF president Sunil Gulati didn't want to fire Klinsmann -- whom he'd handed almost total control of almost every aspect of U.S. Soccer -- but that sort of horrible start, along with increasing concerns of player revolt, left him no choice. Gulati was willing to be patient with some of Klinsmann's, uh, eccentricities as a coach, but the possibility of missing a World Cup would be devastating for U.S. Soccer for years to come.
So they brought in some great visionary, right?
Not quite. Gulati did the most prudent and safe thing he could, hiring Bruce Arena, the most decorated American soccer coach and the only one with more wins than Klinsmann himself. Arena coached USMNT from 1998-2006 and stayed with the U.S., coaching the New York Red Bulls and L.A. Galaxy in the MLS for the next decade afterward. He knew the personnel as well as anyone who wasn't actually the coach could, so he was the guy. Eventually, Gulati will want to spend to find another grand soccer architect for the next generation of U.S. Soccer greatness. But in November, his only concern was making sure that the USMNT qualified for the World Cup. Thus, Arena.
Did Arena immediately turn it around?
It looked so at first. Playing a simpler, more basic style, Arena brought his team into the next qualifier, March 24 against Honduras in San Jose, and smoked the Hondurans, winning 6-0. (And remember, goal differential matters in qualifying.) The U.S. immediately had the third-best goal differential in the Hex after that game, despite losing its first two matches. The game was a blast, and a terrific showcase for Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old phenom who is pretty much the foundation for every happy thought American soccer fans have about anything these days.
The next game was a tough road matchup against Panama that ended in a gnarled 1-1 tie. That's a positive result on the road in the Hex, though it was a bit of a bummer after the explosion against Honduras.
So fourth place is so much better than it could have been right now.
Absolutely. Those four points in March got the U.S. back on track. It still has two games left against Trinidad and Tobago -- the clear bottom dweller of the group -- and home games against Panama and Costa Rica. The USMNT is a point behind Panama, but very much on the right pace.
So how many points does the team need in these two games?
Well, it doesn't need any, but if it somehow loses these two games, the panic after the first two -- which were at least against two of the best teams in the Hex -- will seem like a single bead of sweat running down the forehead. This is the time to make up for those first two games. If you can't win against Trinidad and Tobago at home, all told, you probably don't deserve to go to the World Cup anyway. Winning at Estadio Azteca on Sunday might be impossible -- the U.S. has never won there -- and even a draw is reaching. The nil-nil draw there in 2013 was so improbable that it sent Mexico into an existential crisis about its entire soccer structure. So the minimum is 3 points in the two games. The pie-in-the-sky goal is 4. The Build A Statue Of Bruce Arena number is 6. But anything fewer than 3 points is a nightmare.
Are we gonna do it?
Again, the USMNT should crush Trinidad and Tobago, and it will probably lose to Mexico. If those are the results, you can be happy with that. That might not push the club past Panama -- who should beat Honduras at home, or at least you'd think they would if they had any hope of qualifying themselves -- but it puts them in a solid spot.
Who else should we watch besides Pulisic?
Well, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard and Michael Bradley are all still around, and we all love them. DeAndre Yedlin is healthy, and Bobby Wood is coming around. John Brooks had a hamstring issue in the friendly against Venezuela last week, but he's key to essentially everything USMNT does in the back. Also, Darlington Nagbe is a blast -- you'll love him too, and he's young.
Should I stay at home and watch this on TV?
You absolutely should not. It is always more fun to watch at a bar, particularly an American Outlaws one. There is an AO chapter near you. It's like having your team in the Super Bowl, every game. Plus, if you go to a bar, you're less likely to accidentally come across a commercial for Jason Whitlock's show.
When's the next qualifier after this one?
You've got all summer to relax after this one: The next qualifier is Sept. 1, the Friday of Labor Day weekend and the day before most college football teams start their seasons. The U.S. hosts Costa Rica, at a location yet to be determined. Go nuts these next five days. Paint your face. Scream real loud. Get out some healthy nationalism, before the other stuff overtakes us.
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