It’s just a little bit outrageous to suggest that tonight’s World Cup Qualifying match in Orlando against Panama is the “USMNT’s biggest match in 15 years,” but that seems to be the popular opinion among the media according to most match previews that I’ve come across.
For starters, it suggests that we’re much further along in achieving preferred status as a world soccer superpower than we really are. During the last 15 years, the USMNT has featured in World Cup knockout round matches. We played in a Confederations Cup final. Ironically, we place zero pressure on the U.S. to win in those high-profile events, but treat qualifying for a tournament we ourselves don’t believe we can compete in like the future of professional soccer in America depends on it?
The fundamental flaw here is believing that the quality of the U.S. men’s soccer program is such that we perennially belong in the World Cup. The U.S. sports media is holding the USMNT to a super-standard that we quite frankly haven’t earned.
We’re currently ranked 28th in the FIFA World Rankings, which is both extremely generous (superior teams like The Netherlands and Ireland are inexplicably listed below us) and sad (Turkey, Denmark, Iran, Ukraine, Sweden, and Iceland are ranked ahead of the U.S.).
In reality, our roster features one or two standout talents surrounded by a bunch of guys playing out of their natural positions. For the first time in memory, we lack youth and athleticism in goal. We have little to no options at outside back, evidenced by the fact that Arena was forced to start Demarcus Beasley in a qualifying match. There is also zero continuity to build upon since the last World Cup, with both Jurgen Klinsmann and Bruce Arena implementing what feels like a daily turnstile of trial pairings in the central midfield and central defense.
So how will Bruce choose to line up in Orlando tonight? I expect to see a 3-5-2 with Christian Pulisic lined up as a No. 10 and Michael Bradley and Kellyn Acosta holding behind him. This will allow the U.S. to run out three central defenders with Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, and Matt Beslar (an area where the team actual has some depth) and keep DeAndre Yedlin and Darlington Nagbe out wide. This gives the U.S. a decided numbers advantage in the midfield, which was missing in the previous home loss to Costa Rica last month. That leaves us with Tim Howard in net and the combination of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood in the attacking end. Most importantly, this system would give Pulisic the ability to roam and run off of Altidore and Wood without having to worry about tracking back in defense very often.
Finally, let’s take a look at the various win-loss scenarios for the USMNT’s final two qualifying games with a little help from Donald Wine II from Stars and Stripes FC. Below are the win-loss scenarios resulting in the U.S. finishing 3rd or 4th in the Hexagonal.
WIN vs. Panama, WIN at Trinidad & Tobago
This is the dream, obviously. Wins on Friday and next Tuesday and the USMNT will clinch 3rd place and an automatic World Cup spot – unless Honduras also wins both of its matches (at Costa Rica, vs. Mexico) and does so while making up a minimum 9-goal deficit that currently stands between them and the US. This is highly unlikely, so if we win both, we’re 99.9% in as the 3rd place finisher.
WIN vs. Panama, DRAW at Trinidad & Tobago
This scenario will see us finish in 3rd place provided Panama doesn’t beat Costa Rica on October 10th and Honduras gains no more than 4 points from their final two matches (and doesn’t make up the goal differential). If Panama emerges victorious over Los Ticos and finishes with a greater goal differential than the USMNT, they would finish 3rd and the United States would find itself a spot lower and head to the playoff.
DRAW vs. Panama, WIN at Trinidad & Tobago
This clinches 3rd place for the Americans provided Panama doesn’t manage a win against Costa Rica and Honduras gets no more than 4 points from their two matches (and doesn’t make up the goal differential). If Panama tops Costa Rica in that matchup, they’re in 4th place.
WIN vs. Panama, LOSS at Trinidad & Tobago
Under this scenario, the USMNT will need a Panama loss or draw against Costa Rica and for Honduras to get no more than 3 points against Costa Rica and Mexico to end up in 3rd place. If Panama wins against Costa Rica, the USMNT will finish 4th.
LOSS vs. Panama, WIN at Trinidad & Tobago
Any loss at home to Panama and it’s panic time. Panama would clinch a spot in the World Cup by securing 3rd place, and it will be left to the United States to win at Trinidad and Tobago and hope that Honduras doesn’t get any more than 3 points and doesn’t make up the goal differential in its last two matches.