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U.S. Soccer: Greatest Challenge Since 1990

October 5th, 2017 · No Comments · Football, Russia 2018, soccer, World Cup

The U.S. national soccer team has played in the past seven World Cups and qualified for six of them. The Yanks hosted the 1994 World Cup and did not have to qualify.

From the outside, it looks like light work. A massive country of 300 million people needs only to finish in the top three from a six-nation final round sure to include three dinky Central American countries to secure one of the three berths granted to Concacaf — the acronym usually connected to the Confederation of North, Central and Caribbean Football.

And, despite hiccups here or there, the Yanks usually have had qualification wrapped up before the final match day. In 2010, they had it wrapped up before the final two match days.

But Russia 2018 is different. The Yanks have not clinched, and as the second-to-last round is played tomorrow, they cannot clinch a berth.

The qualifying process will go down to the final day, which is a pressure situation the U.S. has not encountered since 1989, when the U.S. traveled to Trinidad & Tobago knowing it had to win to win to reach the World Cup for the first time in 40 years.

So, we shall soon find out what sort of character this current team has.

Let’s go back and look at World Cup qualifying since the 1998 World Cup.

–In 1997, a team led Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller secured qualification for France 1998 with a match to spare by throttling Canada 3-0. Never a doubt, really, there at the end.

–In 2001, a team led by Brian McBride and Brad Friedel secured its place in Japan/Korea 2002 on the final day of qualifying — but the pressure was muted. Leading Honduras by two points for the third Concacaf berth, the U.S. was at last-place Trinidad while Honduras had to play at Azteca, back when Mexico did not lose there, especially not to the Little People of Concacaf. And so it went. The Yanks drew and Mexico won 3-0 and no one sweated, once the first Mexico goal went in.

–In 2005, a side led by Landon Donovan and Keller had a very easy time qualifying for Germany 2006. The Yanks had things wrapped up with a game in hand (and, realistically, with two games in hand) while¬† rampaging through the group with a 7-1-2 record good for 22 points.

–In 2009, qualifying for South Africa 2010 was secure with a match to spare. (Looking back, this U.S. team, of Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley and Tim Howard probably was the best group in the nation’s history. Went 6-2-2 in qualifying, was runner-up (to Brazil) in the Confederations Cup (beating Spain in the semifinals) and reached the knockout rounds at South Africa.

–In 2013, qualifying for Brazil 2014 probably was the best aspect of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. The U.S. had things wrapped up with two matches to play, helped in part by Mexico’s horrific performance. The Yanks won the group on 22 points. Mexico was fourth, with 11.

And now? The rockiest performance since the College Kid Days in 1990 sees the U.S. and Honduras on nine points, one fewer than Panama, which sits third — the final automatic berth for Russia 2018.

The U.S. can secure third place by beating Panama tomorrow in Orlando and Trinidad in Port of Spain on Tuesday — barring Honduras beating both Costa Rica and Mexico while overturning an eight-goal U.S. advantage in the goal-difference tiebreaker. (A zillion-to-one shot.)

To be sure, this group of Yanks has a bit of a safety net — finishing fourth does not send them to Russia but into a home-and-away playoffs with the winner of the Asian Confederation playoffs between Syria and Australia (currently at 1-1, after a draw tonight.)

The U.S. would be favored to win that, but it would make for another week of frayed nerves … which probably would be fitting for this difficult and even embarrassing siege of qualifying.

 

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