Gaining at least a point on Tuesday at Honduras is critical for the United States’ chances to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup. Mexico clinched one of the three berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean on Friday night, and Costa Rica is close to securing another.
After its second home loss in the hexagonal, the U.S. is clinging to third place, ahead of Honduras on goal difference. A draw or win against the Catrachos would leave the U.S. in position to secure a berth with wins against Panama on Oct. 6 at Orlando, Florida, and at last-place Trinidad and Tobago four days later. “We’ll respond in a big way,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said after the stunning 2-0 loss to Costa Rica at Harrison, New Jersey.
“Everything’s still to play for.” The Americans’ fate is likely to be uncertain heading into their qualifying finale for the first time since 1989, when Paul Caligiuri’s goal at Trinidad lifted the U.S. to a 1-0 win and its first World Cup appearance since 1950. Mexico (5-0-2) leads with 17 points, followed by Costa Rica (4-1-2) with 14. The United States and Honduras both have eight points and 2-3-2 records, but the Americans hold the tiebreaker, a plus-1 goal difference to Honduras’ minus-7.
Panama (1-2-4) has seven points, and Trinidad (1-6) has three points and is virtually eliminated.
CONCACAF’s fourth-place team faces Asia’s No. 5 finisher in a home-and-home playoff in November for another berth, which could mean a trip to Uzbekistan, Saudi Arabia or Australia, or perhaps a match against Syria in Malaysia.
“You face a difficult road now,” midfielder Darlington Nagbe said. Panama is likely to win Tuesday at Trinidad, and a loss at Honduras would drop the U.S. into fifth place heading into the October matches.
American fans would fret for the next month. “We know that all hell breaks loose when you lose a game, and then all the critics come out,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said Thursday. After hosting the U.S., Honduras closes at Costa Rica and at home against Mexico, while Panama hosts Mexico in its finale next month. Teams that already clinched often experiment with young players in their final qualifiers.
Arena figures to make changes. He probably planned several even before key mistakes by goalkeeper Tim Howard and central defenders Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron led to goals Friday night. Brad Guzan could return to goal and 35-year-old DaMarcus Beasley, a veteran of four World Cups, could start at left back, as the pair did for the 1-1 draw at Mexico in June.
Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler are center back options, Eric Lichaj could start at right back, and Kellyn Acosta could be inserted to give the U.S. a more defensive formation for a road match in tropical heat and humidity. With Jozy Altidore suspended for yellow card accumulation, Arena has Bobby Wood, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and Chris Wondolowski to choose from for his attack.
“It’s all still in our hands, and we’re ready to go down to the wire to get ourselves into the World Cup,” Bradley said.