Friday marks the biggest day in U.S. soccer history in quite some time. Tuesday is pretty important, too.
With the U.S. on the verge of not qualifying for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, the next five days are critical for the team if they want to represent the United States on the grandest stage of them all (WrestleMania is cool, too, but not as cool as the World Cup so we’re going to steal their tagline).
First, the U.S. would greatly improve their chances of qualifying for the World Cup if they are able to grab three points in their game against Panama on Friday. USMNT currently sits in fourth place in the CONCACAF Hexagonal with nine points. Panama sits in third with 10 points. The top three finishers get automatic bids to the World Cup. You do the math.
Now, it would be quite a cruel twist of fate (another WWE reference [hello, Hardy Boyz]) if Panama trounced the U.S. tomorrow because, well that’s kind of what the U.S. did to them four years ago. Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson both scoring in second-half stoppage time to lift the U.S. past Panama 3-2 in the 2014 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying round is one of the most memorable moments in USMNT history. Now Panama is looking for revenge.
So, how are the United States’ chances looking heading into Friday’s match? Well, if the U.S. is going to lose, they’re going to lose on the backs of their best homeland players. Eighteen of the 26 players on the roster are based in Major League Soccer. Tim Howard, DaMarcus Beasley, DeAndre Yedlin, Zusi, Juan Agudelo, Michael Bradley, Benny Feilhaber, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey… the list is a rolodex of great memories of the last decade of United States soccer. Now, they’re being called on to help clinch another birth for the U.S. in the World Cup.
What I and a lot of other fans really want to see these next five days, though, is the official passing of the torch to Christian Pulisic. Now, some may say that has already happened and the 19-year-old (!!!) is officially the new face of United States soccer. For me, it’s not that he has necessarily a whole lot to prove, but if he can play a pivotal role in bringing the United States back from the brink of elimination from the World Cup? Then I think we can say we have a national (and more importantly, a potential international) soccer superstar on our hands.
Pulisic has either set up or scored nine of the USA’s last 11 goals. He’s already dazzled people across the pond playing for Borussia Dortmund in German Bundesliga, one of the premier leagues in the world. Now, I don’t think it’s smart to give the ball to a 19-year-old and tell him to go win the game for you. That’s not how you should want to approach any facet of life. However, I do think it’s important that the team plays to Pulisic’s strengths more than any other player. Dempsey and Altidore are key. I’m a Bradley fan, so I’m hoping to see the best out of him. But if the U.S. wants to save itself from embarrassment and not qualifying, get your best players in the right spots at the right time, Pulisic moreso than any other.
So, if the U.S. beats Panama on Friday, then follows that up with another win against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday, then WE IN THE TOURNEY Y’ALL.
Now, what happens if the U.S. falls or ties against Panama? Then things get dicey.
If the team draws against Panama, then they can still clinch third place with a win against Trinidad & Tobago… if Panama doesn’t beat Costa Rica and Honduras gains no more than four points from their two matches (the U.S. currently has a +8 goal advantage over Honduras so one would like to think that’s insurmountable).
A win against Panama followed by a loss against Trinidad & Tobago takes the U.S. out of the driver’s seat. They’ll need a Panama loss or draw against Costa Rica and for Honduras to not creep from behind to snag third place. Same can be said if they defeat Panama, and then lose to Trinidad & Tobago.
What this all boils down to is the United States controlling their own destiny. If they topple Panama tomorrow, their 2018 World Cup hopes and dreams are in their hands. If things don’t go their way against Los Canaleros, then a lot more people than just Alexi Lalas will have harsh words for USMNT.
For a team that has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, along with being, y’know, one of the world’s leading economic and global powers, let’s hope our boys don’t fall flat on their face tomorrow. I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN, I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN, I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN… (keep it going on your own time).