Even though going to Russia sounds more like a punishment than a goal, the United States soccer men’s national team has recently moved closer to that goal.
Last Sunday the Yanks secured an important 1-1 draw at Mexico and after Costa Rica beat Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, USA looks certain to qualify for its eighth World Cup in a row.
The USMNT sits in third in the six-team final qualifying round for CONCACAF (North America, Central America and the Caribbean). Half the teams in the Hexagonal automatically qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia and the fourth place team faces a team from Asia in a two-match playoff, so pretty much four CONCACAF teams make it in since the Asian teams are so awful.
This comes after the USMNT collected zero points from its first two matches last November. When you get three points for a win and one for a draw, zero from two matches when you play 10 starts you in serious danger.
Now the Yanks are in solidly in third with 8 points, behind Mexico (14) and Costa Rica (11) and ahead of Panama (7). The USMNT is 2-2-2 in the Hex, but undefeated since the nightmarish start.
USMNT upcoming schedule
July 1, vs. Ghana (friendly), at East Hartford, Conn.
July 8, vs. Panama (Gold Cup), at Nashville, Tenn.
July 12, vs. Martinique (Gold Cup), at Tampa Bay, Fla.
July 15, vs. Nicaragua (Gold Cup), Cleveland
Sept. 1, vs. Costa Rica (World Cup qualifier)
Sept. 5, at Honduras (World Cup qualifier)
Oct. 6, vs. Panama (World Cup qualifier), at Orlando, Fla.
Oct. 10, at Trinidad & Tobago (World Cup qualifier)
The point at Mexico City’s daunting Azteca Stadium was only the USA’s third ever in World Cup qualifying at the Mexican fortress and El Tri has a 40-2-8 record their in WC qualifying. The pollution, 7,200 altitude and of course talented teams are tough to deal with.
USA has four matches left in their qualifying campaign but with their toughest ones in the book (Mexico and at Costa Rica), things are looking up for the Yanks.
It will be tough for Panama to jump the USA since they already had their home match against the Stars and Stripes and couldn’t beat them. The goal in soccer is generally to get three points and home and one on the road.
ESPN’s analytics squad says the USA has a 91 percent chance to qualify for the World Cup.
The USMNT started the Hex with a loss at home to Mexico, their first home World Cup qualifying loss to their rivals since 1972. It was also the USA’s first home qualifying loss overall since 2001.
Then they lost 4-0 at Costa Rica, a team that they had beaten 4-0 last summer in the Copa America Centenario.
The loss was the last straw for USA manager Jurgen Klinsmann.
Though the Americans enjoyed great success under Klinsmann, like making it out of the Group of Death in the 2014 World Cup, making to the Copa America Centenario final four, winning at Germany, Mexico, Italy and the Netherlands, the USMNT needed a change.
Under Klinsmann,USA started out unbeaten against Mexico the first six teams they met, including the 2012 1-0 friendly win in Azteca, the Americans’ first ever victory there. However the USMNT was on the decline by 2016, having been embarrassed at the 2015 Gold Cup, the CONCACAF championships and then losing the battle between the last two Gold Cup champions to Mexico.
The first ever CONCACAF Cup, which matched the 2013 and 2015 Gold Cup champions seemed like a godsend. Unlike most confederations, CONCACAF plays two continental championships in one four-year World Cup window and as a result (or more likely to make more money), the CONCACAF powers that be created the CONCACAF Cup to decide who would get the coveted berth in the Confederations Cup.
US Soccer and Klinsmann made no secret about their desire to get that trip to the prestigious Confederations Cup, an eight team tournament which matches the winners of the six confederations (roughly continents) plus the defending World Cup champions and World Cup host in a dress rehearsal for the Big Dance the year before.
Instead, USA lost to Mexico for the first time under Klinsmann and Mexico officially reasserted itself as the dominant team in CONCACAF.
That came after El Tri’s awful 2014 World Cup qualifying Hex where they had to make it in by winning the playoff and only finished fourth with help from the USA winning a meaningless game (for them) against Panama on the final match day of the 2013 Hex.
Last summer USA impressed at the Copa America Centenario, a special tournament between North and South America and Mexico was embarrassed 7-0 by Chile but by the end of 2016, that tourney looked like an aberration.
Mexico is atop the Hex standings and heads into the Confederations Cup this week on a 10-match unbeaten streak since the Chile loss.
While USA is watching the Confederations Cup from home, they have their mojo back.
Some USMNT fans actually complained that the Yanks should have won the latest game at the Azteca, something unfathomable a few months ago.
To replace Klinsmann, US Soccer hired Bruce Arena, who led the side to the 2002 quarterfinals, beating tournament favorites Portugal and Mexico along the way.
Arena has provided a steady hand for the Yanks after Klinsmann’s constant tinkering. Even though he had seven changes from USA’s starting 11 against Mexico following their 2-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, he prepared and warned the team about that.
Plus 18-year old phenom Christian Pulisic has emerged. He scored both goals against the Trinidadians & Toboggans.
USA is unbeaten in the seven matches since the Costa Rica loss, including outscoring opponents 8-0 in the two home qualifiers since that defeat at the hands of Mexico.
Next month they have a chance to exorcise those CONCACAF Cup demons by winning the Gold Cup again.
While the probably the only Americans that fancy Russia right now are the Trumps, USA is well on its way to vodka and Tetris country.