The last time the U.S. took a World Cup qualifying campaign to the final game was 1989, when Paul Caligiuri’s first-half goal beat Trinidad and Tobago and sent the Americans to the world championship competition for the first time in 40 years.
They haven’t missed a World Cup since.
That streak is very much in danger, its fate not likely to be known until the final minutes of the last U.S. qualifier Oct. 10 in Trinidad. First, the U.S. must beat Panama on Friday in Orlando City Stadium.
“It’s a really simple equation for us,” midfielder Dax McCarty said after training Monday. “We don’t want to get into all these different scenarios of, ‘What if this happens? What do we have to do?’ The main focus for us is on Panama. Three points is going to be the only thing that’s acceptable in our mind.”
The U.S. (2-3-3) enters the final two match days of the 10-game CONCACAF qualifying tournament in fourth place, a point behind Panama (2-2-4). Only the top three teams qualify automatically for next year’s competition in Russia.
If the U.S. wins it final two games, it goes to the World Cup for the eighth consecutive time, something only seven other countries have done. Anything short of that and the U.S. will need help — or to win a two-leg intercontinental playoff next month against Syria or Australia to grab the final World Cup invitation.
“We have no excuses,” coach Bruce Arena said. “We’re not depending on other teams to win games to help us. We’re depending on ourselves. Whenever you’re in that situation, I think it’s a positive.”
The U.S. is in this situation because it lost its opening two qualifiers last fall, at home to Mexico and at Costa Rica —leading to Jurgen Klinsmann’s firing and the hiring of Arena as his replacement — and last month lost a home qualifier against Costa Rica.
The Americans have never lost three home games in a qualifying cycle and have never lost a qualifier against Panama. However, Panama played well against the Americans in a physical 1-1 draw in Central America in March and has given up only five goals in eight games during the tournament.
The U.S. will be without its two most intimidating players: hulking center back John Brooks, who is sidelined because of a thigh injury; and Galaxy midfielder Jermaine Jones, who hasn’t played for the national team since the March qualifier in Panama. But Arena will have six players who have participated in multiple World Cups and a dozen who have appeared in at least 11 qualifiers, including teenage playmaker Christian Pulisic, who has either scored or set up nine of the 11 U.S. goals in the last six qualifiers.
“There’s confidence. There’s still urgency though. We understand what’s at stake,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “This is about guys who are battle-tested. And grit. We’re going to have to have a good combination of footballers, guys who can take the ball, but also guys who want to roll up their sleeves and fight in the trenches.”
With three losses, the U.S. already has lost as many times in this cycle as it had in any qualifying competition played under the current hexagonal format. However, eight of Arena’s players hadn’t been born the last time the U.S. needed to win its final qualifier to reach a World Cup.
Defender Graham Zusi, who was 3 when that game was played, said that everyone on this year’s team is looking forward to seeing history repeated.
“We’re in a position where, to be honest, we want to be,” he said. “Our destiny is in our own hands. We control it.
“You’ve seen this team respond to pressure well in the past. It always seems like we come together at the right time and take care of the job. And that’s our mentality this week.”