USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers previews the World Cup qualifying match between the U.S. and Honduras.
USA TODAY Sports
SAN JOSE, Calif. – There are 5,889 miles separating Northern California and Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium, but if things turn sour for the United States on Friday night, then the next World Cup will seem much further away than that.
After a dismal start to the final round of qualifying for soccer’s biggest show, the U.S. finds itself needing to beat Honduras at Avaya Stadium or else be faced with a grim stack of historical precedent to overcome.
Coach Bruce Arena has been brought in to repair the damage of two defeats to begin this round in the CONCACAF region, setbacks that led to the firing of Jurgen Klinsmann.
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Yet while Arena has eight more games in which to lift the Americans out of last place in the six-team field and propel them into either a top-three position for automatic qualification or fourth place and an intercontinental playoff, past campaigns have not been kind to teams that kicked off poorly.
“Mathematically speaking, this is not a must-win game,” former U.S. national team star and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas said. “But it is completely fair to call it that.”
No team has ever lost its first three games in CONCACAF’s final round and reached the World Cup. Nor has any team lost its first two home games and advanced. Only once has a CONCACAF team qualified for the World Cup after collecting one point from its first three games – Jamaica in 1998.
All of which means that victory over Honduras shapes up as a necessary part of the revival that Arena envisions.
“We are quietly confident,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya told USA TODAY Sports. “We need a win.”
On paper, the U.S. is better than most of its regional rivals and no one doubts it has the quality to mount a strong comeback and clinch a World Cup place for the eighth time in succession.
The problem that can arise, and that can be averted by a winning performance on Friday, is if a campaign becomes toxic. As bad results pile up, so can the pressure to turn things around. Opponents can tailor their game plan, knowing you are in desperate need of a win. Nationalistic expectation becomes a burden. The fear of missing out turns into a ball and chain. Every minute of every game becomes a grind, every piece of bad luck seems like a portent of doom.
It has happened to countless teams in the past, some of them great ones. The Netherlands, World Cup finalists in 2010 and semifinalists in 2014, missed out on last year’s European Championships after a slow start in qualifying injected a dose of nervousness. The Dutch are struggling again as they try to make it to Russia, while Lionel Messi’s Argentina and Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal are also in need of improvement.
Arena has been through this process before during his prior stint with the national team, and there is little doubt he he has the pedigree for such a scenario. Klinsmann had grandiose schemes and a blueprint aimed at technical excellence, easy on the eye but not always effective. Arena believes the prettiest thing you can see on a soccer field is the scoreboard telling you your team has won.
However, one of the realities of soccer in America is that the more the game grows, so too do expectations. The soccer public is hungry and is more interested in looking ahead to a hypothetical day when the U.S. can rub shoulders with the likes of Brazil and Germany. Such aspirations may not be realistic, at least in the short term, but they are there.
Floundering around CONCACAF and flirting with disaster is something no one has any interest in, which piles a significant burden on Arena and his group. How they respond to the challenge on Friday will say much about their fortitude and much about whether the next few months are to bring about a bold comeback or a white-knuckle ride toward Russia.
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