Commentary: US men’s national team closes in on clinching World Cup spot, maybe

So it’s come down to this for the United States men’s national soccer team.

With two games left in their 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign, the USA has a chance to punch its ticket to Russia or risk missing out on the big dance.

On Friday at 4:30 p.m. on ESPN2, the USMNT hosts Panama and then they close out the qualifying hexagonal at Trinidad and Tobago at 5 p.m. on beIN Sports.

The USA sits in fourth place in the six-team CONCACAF qualifying table. Mexico is in first and have already qualified, Costa Rica is in second and on the brink and Panama is in third, a point ahead of the US.

The top three qualify automatically and the fourth place team plays in a playoff against Australia or Syria.

The United States is tied with Honduras for fourth but has a +1 goal differential and Honduras has a -7 GD.

Trinidad and Tobago is in last place and has only one game and tied none while losing seven.

The USA finds itself in this perilous position after its shock defeat at the hands of Costa Rica on Sept. 1. Sure Costa Rica had beaten the US 4-0 in their game in Central America, but the USA had beaten them 4-0 last summer and in the Gold Cup this past summer and was riding a 15 game unbeaten streak since Bruce Arena became the USMNT’s head coach again.

CR beat the USA 2-0, it’s worst home World Cup qualifying loss in 60 years. The USA had gotten complacent, even foolishly scheduling the game in the New York area, which is heavily populated by Costa Rican fans.

The USMNT lately has lacked the fight and scrappiness that has made its fans proud. Perhaps they lost that edge when so many of them decided to play in the more comfortable MLS than fight for spots in the most prestigious Mexican league or European leagues.

Most people would take more money to play in their home country to be sure and the level of the MLS has risen of late, but with a salary cap, the is not much competition for roster spots, especially for national team players. The players who still ply their trade abroad have to fight for their spots.

For example, USA fans often lambaste captain Michael Bradley. He left the prestigious Serie A in Italy for a big pay day in the MLS.

After the disastrous loss however, the US rebounded to get a 1-1 draw at Honduras four days later. It wasn’t a pretty game and the Yanks need a late rebound goal to get the point but generally a draw on the road is a good thing and in this case it was vital.

With the draw, the USA stayed tied with the Hondurans in the last qualifying spot and gives them a chance to move into the last automatic slot.

“The point in Honduras obviously made all the difference in terms of us now controlling our own destiny going into these last two games,” said USMNT goalkeeper Tim Howard to ussoccer.com. “When you start this Hex campaign, that’s what you’re hoping for. You’re hoping to get into October in a position to qualify and only worry about yourself. Here we are.”

Although the US tied Panama in their game in Central America in March, American fans are justifiably concerned.

The US was expected to cruise to its eighth straight World Cup. However after they started the final round of World Cup qualifying, the hex, with losses at home to Mexico and at Costa Rica, they fired their coach.

It looked like Arena, who led the Americans to the Elite Eight of the 2002 World Cup, had righted the ship when the Yanks beat Honduras 6-0 got the draw at Panama and then cruised to the Gold Cup (regional championship tournament). Then came the loss to Costa Rica and it became apparent that their last coach, Jurgen Klinsmann wasn’t the problem.

By all accounts the US should beat both Panama and T&T and go to Russia, but they also should have beaten Mexico at home, not lost by four goals at Costa Rica or lost to them at home.

Plus Panama has been waiting for this chance for four years.

According to Paul Carr of ESPN, the USA currently has an 83 percent chance to qualify for the World Cup right now. With a win against Panama, it jumps to 93 percent, drops to 62 percent with a draw and 44 percent with a loss.

A win over the USA would clinch the Panamanians’ first ever World Cup. They had a good chance to make it to the last World Cup, needing a win in the final game against the USA, which had already qualified and sent a second choice team.

However, Graham Zusi scored a stoppage time goal to get a draw and save Mexico. The goal sent Panama home and Mexico into the fourth place playoff.

A Mexican commentator said “¡Gol Estados Unidos! We love you! We love you forever and ever! God bless America!” while watching the end of that USA game in 2013 split screen with Mexico’s last game.

After such a heart-breaking end to their last World Cup qualifying campaign, Panama will certainly be motivated to get the win in Orlando.

With all this, it looks like at best the USA would limp into the World Cup and not do well. But remember Mexico.

El Tri won only two of their 10 hex games in 2014 World Cup qualifying and yet at the WC, they got a draw against Brazil, the World Cup host, and made it to the second round.

Every major tournament lately England easily qualifies and yet they disappoint when they’re not playing teams like Malta, Lithuania and Scotland.

USA fans are right to be worried after the terrible performances they have had of late but maybe it’s a good thing. An easy qualifying campaign doesn’t guarantee success.

Sure the US finished first in the hex for the last three World Cups, but for the 2002 World Cup, where they almost made the Final Four, they finished third in the hex.

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