Until the recent loss to Costa Rica, the USMNT had gone 9-0-5 since new manager Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann in November. While the quality of their opponents has varied, Arena has been credited with righting a ship that seemed to be adrift during the Klinsmann era. With squad experimentation replaced by a stable lineup and veteran leadership, the Stars and Stripes have progressed from an untenable position in their group table to a strong chance of qualifying for the World Cup in 2018. The loss to Los Ticos on their home soil clearly stung, but should not by itself be viewed as a harbinger of things to come.
The remaining games left for the Americans in their qualifiers should result in garnering enough points to advance beyond the group stage. They play an away match in Honduras on Sept. 5, are home again on Oct. 6 against Panama and finish in Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10. With the U.S. currently tied for third place with Honduras (and ahead of Los Castrachos based on goal differential), each match is critical. But the USMNT will qualify to compete in Russia for the following reasons:
The Loss to Costa Rica Came Down to a Few Key Moments
The USMNT should’ve walked away with at least a point in their most recent match. Costa Rica made the most out of their two opportunities, with Marco Urena scoring on a defensive miscue by Tim Ream followed by a poor play on the ball by Tim Howard. There was the no-call by the referee when Jozy Altidore was clearly fouled in the penalty area by defender Kendall Waston, as well as a few spectacular saves by goalkeeper Keylor Navas.
While credit goes to Costa Rica for sticking to a winning game plan, the result could’ve gone either way. A few changes should be made headed into the Honduras match, but reading too much into the Costa Rica game would be a mistake.
The Veterans Will Provide Leadership
With so much on the line for the final three matches, Arena will once again rely on his veterans. While Jozy Altidore will be forced to sit out the Honduras game due to yellow card accumulation, look for the more experienced players such as Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley to step up their game at their respective positions.
Supported by younger players such as Christian Pulisic, Jordan Morris and Bobby Wood, none of the final three opponents have nearly as strong a roster as the USMNT or the veterans able to lead the charge. Even with the next match being played in the tough environment of San Pedro Sula in Honduras, the veterans will be less affected by the hostility of the venue.
The Starting Eleven Will Change
While Arena is not prone to make changes as he faces different opponents, there is no question that the loss to Costa Rica was disappointing. Some players had subpar performances, and this has not gone unnoticed by the USMNT staff. Ream’s play (in for the injured John Brooks) was inconsistent, and one would think a personnel change at that position will occur. It is possible that Matt Besler will get the nod as his replacement, partly because he plays next to Graham Zusi in Kansas City and they are familiar with one another.
In the midfield, look for Fabian Johnson to be replaced by Darlington Nagbe on one flank (with Pulisic on the other flank). Since Michael Bradley continues to be solid as one of the central midfielders, look for Arena to play Alejandro Bedoya alongside Bradley. Bedoya is a veteran who can provide the two-way play that will be needed against Los Castrachos. Up front without Altidore, the U.S. has two options. They can start a Seattle Sounders front line of Dempsey and Morris, or can opt for Dempsey and Bobby Wood. Look for the latter to occur, since Dempsey and Wood have played well together as a unit and Morris would be a good option for a substitute as the game progressed.
The U.S. Has Had Success against Honduras
While each match is unique and this one is being play in the hostile confines of San Pedro Sula, the home match of the U.S-Honduras qualifier has already been played with a resounding 6-0 result for the USMNT. Los Castrachos have played unevenly since then, while the Stars and Stripes have shown improvement.
The U.S. clearly has some pressure on them, but with their final two matches against Costa Rica and Mexico, Honduras knows they need three points at home. With an overall record of 16-4-4 against the United States, that might prove to be a tall order.
The Final Two WCQ Matches
Should the USMNT leave Honduras with at least a point (and possibly three), their final group stage matches will be at home against Panama and then in Trinidad and Tobago four days later. With these teams at the bottom of the group and already eliminated from advancing beyond the group stage, it would be surprising if the U.S. didn’t garner at least four and possibly six points from these two games. While the U.S. and Panama played to a 1-1 draw in their two matches this year, this game will provide the Stars and Stripes with homefield advantage. History would seem to favor the U.S. as well, with an overall record of 10-1-3 against Los Canaleros. Look for the USMNT to pick up all three points against Panama.
The Trinidad and Tobago game should result in three points for the American squad, as the U.S. is 18-3-4 overall against them dating back to 1982. And they haven’t lost a match against Trinidad and Tobago since 2008. While the games against the Soca Warriors at Hasely Crawford Stadium tend to be close affairs (often due to poor field conditions), even a tie would probably propel the United States beyond the group stage. With nine points at stake in the final three matches for the USMNT, it is likely that even five points would see the U.S. earn a World Cup spot in Russia in 2018.