By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON DC (Sep 4, 2017) US Soccer Players - The USMNT continues to break new ground, both for better and for worse, in World Cup qualifying. After struggling at Estadio Azteca for decades, the US have earned draws on their last two qualifying visits to Mexico. In the last World Cup cycle they posted both their first-ever loss, and first-ever win, at Jamaica. They lost at Honduras for the first time in qualifying. And on Friday night at Red Bull Arena, the Yanks fell 2-0 at the hands of Costa Rica, their first home loss to Los Ticos in a qualifier in more than three decades.
The US was riding a 14-game unbeaten streak into this one. That run was always going to end eventually. We may have also seen some natural regression towards the mean in terms of individual performances from some of the team’s top players. That said, the timing on this one sure could’ve been better.
Costa Rica’s tactical plan was no great surprise. They set up shop in the 5-4-1 that has been their default for years now. The Ticos arrived packed with MLS players familiar with the venue and opponents. They defended with organization and bite, then sprang forward on the counterattack when circumstances allowed.
Costa Rica's opening goal was particularly crucial. It rewarded their approach and tilted the field in their favor. If the ball had flown a few inches one way or another, or on one of the USMNT’s early chances, the story might be a great deal different.
It’s not, of course. Costa Rica’s win pushes the Ticos to the doorstep of qualification. Mexico officially booked their trip to Russia via their 1-0 defeat of Panama later in the evening. The traditional qualifying blueprint of “win at home, draw on the road” is up in smoke.
So with three games left, the USMNT is now facing a race with Panama and Honduras for CONCACAF’s third and final automatic berth. The second-best team in that pursuit will move on to the trickier path of a two-legged intercontinental playoff with a team from Asia. 5th-place in the Hex is hard out of luck.
So how might that chase shape up? Here’s a rundown of the matches remaining and a few scenarios of what might transpire.
USMNT (on 8 points): At Honduras, home vs Panama, at Trinidad & Tobago
Many fans will remember the USMNT’s unsightly 2-1 loss at Honduras in the opening game of the 2014 Hex. Los Catrachos’ gamesmanship saw the game played on an overgrown pitch in midday heat, with a loud crowd bolstered by the declaration of a national half-holiday.
That was Honduras’s first-ever home qualifying win over the Yanks. The US are 3-1-1 all-time in the Central American nation. In fact, the USMNT clinched their place at the 2010 World Cup with a wild 3-2 win in San Pedro Sula on October 10, 2009, with one hex game to spare.
A repeat of those heroics on Tuesday would be extremely helpful. A road win would truly be a six-point swing, as it would keep the Yanks in third while also denying the Catrachos a key home result. A draw would be less of a salve, but nonetheless quite important heading into October’s games. A Honduras victory would vault them into sole possession of third place, three points ahead of the USMNT.
Panama’s visit to Orlando on October 6 is a must-win in just about any scenario. The US will be counting on Orlando City’s gorgeous, loud new stadium to throb with noise and passion. The history is also encouraging. The United States are 5-0-2 in qualifying against Los Canaleros and have won all three of the home games in that sequence.
The final-day trip to Trinidad may also constitute a must-win. The Soca Warriors are stuck in last place with just one Hex win. The Yanks drew 0-0 in Port-of-Spain when these two sides met in the semifinal round of this cycle.
HONDURAS (on 8 points): Home vs USMNT, at Costa Rica, home vs Mexico
Los Catrachos have two home games remaining. Tuesday’s clash with the US looms extremely large now. They’ll surely do their best to make it as hostile an experience as possible for their guests. They will also be rooting for a draw between the USMNT and Panama.
Honduras also faces the runaway group leaders in the fall. They lost at Costa Rica and drew at home to Mexico in the last cycle. Now, they almost certainly need a victory in at least one of those matches.
The question for the USMNT is how Costa Rica and Mexico will approach those games. El Tri is already in. The Ticos are very close. Will they write off their final games as exhibitions? Give hungry fringe players a chance to impress? Almost any scenario injects uncertainty into the reckoning.
PANAMA (on 7 points): Home vs T&T, at USMNT, home vs Costa Rica
Los Canaleros also have two of their last three at home, and will see Tuesday’s visit from the Soca Warriors as a locked-in three points. They’ll probably also need to beat the Ticos at home on the last day.
If they do that, and can gut out a draw in Orlando, they’d finish on 14 points. That's probably enough to earn 4th-place and the playoff slot. They fell agonizingly short of their first-ever World Cup trip in the last go-round and will be desperate to get over the hump this time.
This all sets up a fascinating three-way duel. The USMNT have only one home game left, but the T&T game may be their salvation. In the 2014 Hex, 15 points was enough to earn Honduras 3rd-place, while Mexico came in fourth with just 11 points and had to back in via a playoff win over New Zealand.
The key thing for all three teams in this year’s race is simple. Victories, not draws, are what’s needed now. Will that provoke any of these coaches to open things up and go for broke? Can the players set aside the crushing weight of pressure? For all involved, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
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