Friday evening, the USMNT begins its final stretch run to qualify for next summer's World Cup in Russia. It's the first hexagonal qualifiers since a historic 1-1 tie in Mexico City against rival Mexico on June 11, and it's the beginning of a dead sprint: The USMNT plays its final four games over the next 40 days. And then we will know.
If you haven't paid attention since June 11, or even since before then, here's a primer to get you up to speed for Friday night's game against Costa Rica, which begins at 6:55 p.m. ET on ESPN.
So they haven't qualified for the World Cup yet?
Not yet, though it's getting about that time. The USMNT officially qualified in the last cycle on Sept. 10, 2013, beating Mexico in another dos a cero matchup in Columbus, Ohio.
Three teams from CONCACAF qualify, and a fourth will be part of a play-in game to make the World Cup. What place are we in?
Third! With six games down and four to go, the USMNT is in third place, with eight points. They are behind Mexico, with 14, and Costa Rica, with 11. Panama is right behind them with seven.
That's a lot better than we started out, right?
Definitely. The USMNT, famously, lost its first two games of qualifying, at home against Mexico and on the road against Costa Rica, in a fashion so gruesome and demoralizing that it got Jurgen Klinsmann fired. Bruce Arena, who coached the team from 1998-2006, was brought in to steer the ship back on course, and he has done exactly that: The USMNT has two wins and two draws in qualifying since he took over.
So they're in good shape? They're not going to blow this?
It's unlikely. We Global Football, a site that predicts the World Cup participants, has the USMNT with 84.62 percent odds of qualifying. The club was below 50 percent before Arena took over.
By the way, if you're curious, three teams have already secured spots in the 32-team field: Iran, Brazil and host Russia. High quality teams in danger of missing out:
- Italy (62.72 percent odds of qualifying)
- Sweden (52 percent)
- Greece (33.42 percent)
- Netherlands (9.32 percent)
- Wales (8.2 percent)
- Czech Republic (3.9 percent)
Arena is doing a pretty good job, it seems.
He's certainly doing what he was supposed to do when U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati brought him in. Klinsmann might have had skills in talent acquisition and long-term strategy, but his in-game tactical acumen left plenty to be desired, to say the least. Arena has come in and settled everything down, with basic, logical formations and strategies that his players have responded to. And his curveball formation and lineup for the Mexico game -- mocked heavily pregame -- led to a road draw with El Tri, perhaps the most impressive result he's had so far.
Arena probably isn't coaching the team beyond next year's World Cup -- Gulati is expected to bring in a younger, more "visionary" coach and technical director -- but it is impossible to argue with his results so far. He has coached 14 games for USMNT this cycle, and the team has won nine and drawn five. Sure, some of those games were in a watered-down Gold Cup, but hey, the team hasn't lost yet: What more do you want from the guy?
So what matches do the USMNT have left? Can it qualify in the next week?
Probably not, but the team can come awfully close. The games are:
- Friday, 6:55 p.m. ET, hosting Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena. (This is a hot ticket: It's $160 just to get in. )
- Next Tuesday, 5:30 p.m. ET, at Honduras.
- October 6, hosting Panama, 7 p.m. ET, in Orlando.
- October 10, at Trinidad and Tobago.
In the last cycle, the third place team qualified with 15 points, and the fourth-place team -- the team that has to play in the play-in game -- had 11. (It was Mexico, amusingly.) Right now, the U.S. has eight points. Two wins and a draw in those four games would almost certainly do it, and they might not even need that much. The ace in the hole is the Trinidad & Tobago game to wrap up qualifying. Even if something goes wrong in one of the two home games, T&T is by far the worst team in the field and may be three points just waiting for the USMNT at the very end.
So what should we want from these games in the next five days?
The USMNT has some business to take care of with Costa Rica, who wiped it out 4-0 back in November in the game that led to Klinsmann's firing. (If you have no memory of that game, recall that it was a week after the presidential election. The next fortnight is a blur of bourbon and tears over here. I get it.) If the USMNT can win that game, a draw on the road against Honduras would be golden, particularly because it puts Costa Rica, the team directly ahead of the U.S., in the possible position of getting zero points in the next two games. (They host Mexico on Tuesday.)
Four points, particularly with the home game against Panama and the road game with Trinidad & Tobago in October, should do the trick. Even three points would be OK. Less than that, you maybe start sweating a little bit.
How's the team looking, anyway?
Solid! There have been a few injury woes -- DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks, likely starters in Russia, are both out -- but the team is in excellent form and, lest you forget, has not actually lost a game since June. (Fourteen games!) Michael Bradley has been excellent and is surely still floating from that fantastic goal against Mexico.
Clint Dempsey is settling into the super-sub attacking goal-scorer mode that some thought could have worked for Landon Donovan in 2014, Jozy Altidore is as in-form as he's been in years and, of course, there is the wonder kid Christian Pulisic, the 18-year-old phenom who's already not just the best player on the team, but maybe the most terrific story in American sports right now. He's the star, and he's also a whole new direction for the sport in this country. The great Grant Wahl noted in Sports Illustrated that "In the past 16 months, Pulisic has already accomplished enough to become the best chance the U.S. has ever had of producing its first global men's soccer superstar." He's currently one of the best players in the German Bundesliga. He is reason to watch these games by himself. He's about to take over the planet. As Wahl puts it, "covering Pulisic now feels a little like covering LeBron James when he was a high school junior." Get hyped.
There's a ton of football this weekend. I'm supposed to take out time for soccer?
Well, the soccer is well-timed. The games are Friday -- right after the college football opener games on Thursday and a day before the full slate on Saturday; do you really need to watch Washington-Rutgers on Friday? -- and Tuesday, the day after Labor Day. This could potentially be the most exciting USMNT team in decades, a team that hasn't lost in nearly three months, with a teenage LeBron in charge of everything. Plus: It'll be nice to feel like things are OK in America for a couple of hours. USA! USA!
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