Where does the USMNT stand in World Cup Qualifying?

Christian Pulisic

Christian Pulisic
Photo: Getty Images

Call this the Idiot’s Guide to World Cup Qualifying. The diehard American Outlaws probably know this information by heart. Casual fans may know some. Most general sports fans in America will only tune in to soccer should the United States men’s national team make it to the World Cup, meaning it’ll be more than eight years since some have actively watched the red, white and blue who don jerseys with no stars above the U.S. crest. The women’s team has four (signifying for World Cup titles).

Long story short, the current crop of US men are in solid shape to advance to Qatar. Their standing could and should be better, but also could be so much worse, evidenced by missing the 2018 World Cup in Russia after a loss to Trinidad & Tobago, who didn’t even advance to the final stage of qualification this go-round. Most of the contributors from that squad are figures of the past. The core of this American team is younger, has more overseas experience, and appears to be hungrier for on-field success than the groups over the last few WCQ cycles.

The biggest holdover from that group is Christian Pulisic, who was 19 years old when the last WCQ cycle ended. He was proclaimed to be the greatest American soccer player ever, leading another generation into the limelight, the next coming of Landon Donovan but better, holding the patriotic shield for US men’s soccer that symbolizes his literal nickname: “Captain America.” He’ll be 24 should (when) the US participate in the 2022 World Cup’s group stage, maturing in the same manner Chris Evans did going from the Human Torch to Steve Rogers. Other talented names such as Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Tim Weah, Yunus Musah and Sergiño Dest are ones you need to know too. I probably shouldn’t just glance over them and the unmentioned footy specialists. If (when) the USA plays in Qatar, we’ll have plenty of time to get back to it.

Four World Cup Qualifying windows are done, one to go in CONCACAF. Three matches left to go before the eight teams taking part in the first-time octagonal qualifying method know their international fates. The top trio advances straight to Qatar, fourth place moves to a playoff against the Oceania Football Confederation’s best, likely to be New Zealand, as Australia competes in the Asian federation.

The bottom four get nothing. All the tough match days and travel around North America, only to try again for the 2026 FIFA World Cup, which will be hosted by Canada, Mexico, and the United States. Two teams already know they’re eliminated — Honduras and Jamaica — with El Salvador needing a herculean effort and other results to go its way during the final three match days at the end of March to also avoid a grand prize of nothing.

The magic number of points the USA needs to book its ticket to Qatar in November is six, meaning it also needs five to secure a top-half finishing spot and guarantee the journey won’t end March 30 in Costa Rica. The team currently in fourth is Panama, the only home opponent left for the US in this 14-game round-robin gauntlet. In simple terms, a win on March 27 in Orlando against Los Canaleros drops the magic number to zero in the head-to-head with Panama. Should fifth-place Costa Rica drop a single point against first-place Canada or from a road game against El Salvador, the trip to San Jose to close this stage of WCQ on March 30 would be irrelevant to the Americans’ chances of being one of the 32 teams at the World Cup. They’d be in.

It’s weird to say the Americans’ first match of the final window, March 24 against bitter-rival Mexico from Estadio Azteca, one of the marquee matchups of the US rolodex, doesn’t carry more weight. There’s the obvious in playing your biggest rival, who hasn’t beaten the USA in this exact fixture since 2009, three cycles ago, after two draws in Mexico City, and overall since 2019 after three consecutive competitive losses in 2021.

There are nearly two months to brush up on all of that. Truth be told, with the resources the US Soccer Federation has, not qualifying for the World Cup in any cycle is a cataclysmic failure. Mexico, and this best-ever generation of Canadians, should be the only countries in North America to come close to the quality of the USA right now. Dropped points in earlier road games in San Salvador and Kingston, paired with awful performances in Panama City and on Sunday in Ontario, means the Americans have to wait until the last minute to qualify, unlike it did during its last successful qualification in 2013.

So why provide this information the day after the latest game and the next one isn’t for seven weeks? Soccer should only ramp up in support leading up to hosting a World Cup again. It helped spark the creation of MLS. The effect the 1999 Women’s FIFA World Cup had on this country is still being felt in a tidal wave of top-tier talent coming from the USA. Where would Pulisic rank among the world’s best players? Probably higher than any American ever, although his form at Chelsea has slipped in recent months, but it still doesn’t move the international needle the way a premier athlete from this country should. He and this talented crop of youngsters have time to change that though.

Part of why this qualification process is so important is because most of these players should not only be around for the next one or two cycles, but a lot haven’t hit their peaks yet. This is the best dress rehearsal possible moving forward. That next game against Mexico? Among last night’s starters in a 3-0 win over Honduras, only Kellyn Acosta played in the last road World Cup Qualifier against El Tri. Pulisic came off the bench to score a goal in St. Paul, Minnesota last night. He played in Mexico City. Jordan Morris started last night in Pulisic’s usual spot. He stayed on the bench for that June 2017 showdown, but got to experience Estadio Azteca as a consolation.

Now, the heavy majority of critical players get to experience the picturesque environment with a tiny safety net, provided they take care of business and avoid a Hindenburg collapse against Panama. There is only the consequence of sitting out on the international stage again until they get an automatic qualifying spot as hosts in four years. History shouldn’t repeat itself. Avoiding a Titanic sequel is a must. If sitting out in 2018 set US Soccer back a daunting amount of steps, imagine the results if this crop of players didn’t have the chance to outright earn their spot until 2030. That’s heavy stakes for one game. Then again, it’s the exact pressure the Americans should feel ahead of a World Cup.

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