If you’re a follower of the United States, chances are you pressed the ‘PANIC’ button repeatedly after last month’s round of World Cup qualifiers. The Costa Rica match at home wasn’t pretty, and the away draw against Honduras was only slightly bearable.
Now, in a circumstance not even Ian Darke could have predicted, the USMNT is on the brink of missing their first World Cup since 1986. The team currently sits in 4th place in the Hexagonal standings, one point behind 3rd place Panama, with two games to play. ESPN’s Soccer Power Index only gives the team a 69 percent chance of clinching one of the top three spots.
Despite all the nervous vibes surrounding their chances, the USMNT is still in the best position to qualify for next year’s tournament among the other CONCACAF teams. In fact, I would go as a far as to say that by this time next week, our attention will be turned to what pot the U.S. will be drawn out of in December and who they might be scheduled to face. There are three main reasons why we don’t have to worry about the possibility of a World Cup without the United States:
It is by no means the best roster the USMNT has put forward in recent history, but Bruce Arena came up with this current squad with experience and veterans in mind. Only 5 changes were made from the last roster to this one.
Yes, Arena left off arguably one of the most in-form US defenders in Fabian Johnson, but the return of DeAndre Yedlin to right back should bring a spark of energy against a tough Panama side. Other arguable backups called up, like Chris Wondolowski, Benny Feilhaber, and Graham Zusi, are not the type of players the USMNT wants to build their World Cup squad around. But, for these dire purposes, they provide experience and can produce solid, even if more boring, play.
Additionally, the USMNT has 9 players just one yellow card away from missing the final qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago. Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Matt Besler, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, DaMarcus Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya are all carrying yellow cards. With his roster, Arena has room for adjustment, bringing in some experienced players to fill in the gaps in case one is left open due to accumulation of yellows.
“If any issues arise,” Arena said, “we have cover in all positions.”
Home Field Advantage
Last month, Costa Rican fans came out in droves in New York, which made for an eerie scene as the United States dipped in performance. I would expect Orlando, with Orlando City’s amazing MLS crowds in their beautiful new stadium, to be much more energized in the direction of the US.
Bruce Arena knows how important a home crowd will be against Panama, which has only allowed five goals in eight games thus far. “I’m going to make a plea to the people in Orlando: We need you out supporting the U.S. team,” Arena said. “I think the last time out in New York, we didn’t have the kind of venue that we need to have in these games. That’s important. Hopefully we have a crowd that is very supportive of the U.S. team and they can maybe drown out the supporters of the visiting team if that’s the case.”
This game is important for the city as well. It marks the first World Cup qualifier held at Orlando City Stadium, and a sellout crowd of 25,500 is expected. Add on top of the anxiousness the call from Bruce Arena to believe in the squad, and you should expect the Orlando faithful to be jazzed all night long.
History Has Our Back
It’s been a while since the USMNT has gone this deep before qualifying for a World Cup. 1989 to be exact. That year, Paul Caligiuri scored in the final qualifying match against Trinidad and Tobago to send the men through to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.
Most of our players weren’t born then, but that doesn’t mean they haven’t experienced some thrilling, last minute finishes of their own. Just think back to 2010, when Landon Donovan did this against Algeria in the World Cup:
Or in 2014, when unlikely hero John Brooks sealed it for us against Ghana:
Or even back to three months ago, when wonder-kid Jordan Morris gave us the Gold Cup in dramatic fashion.
To put it simply, the USMNT has a flare for the dramatic, which is why taking the qualifiers this late into the schedule may all be part of the madness behind Bruce Arena’s team.
These flashbacks have us pumped for this week. What do you think the USMNT still needs to do in order to qualify? Let us know in the comments below.