The last time the United States Men’s Soccer Team took the field for a World Cup qualifier, it produced one of the most humiliating moments in the program’s history.
In the last game of qualifying for the 2018 World Cup in the CONCACAF group, all the U.S. needed was a draw against lowly Trinidad and Tobago, which entered the match with one win in nine qualifying contests.
But the Americans couldn’t even pull that off, losing 2-1, falling to fifth in the six-team group and failing to qualify for the World Cup in Russia. It was the first time since 1986 the U.S. failed to qualify for the World Cup.
Now, qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar (scheduled for next November instead of the traditional summer time slot) has arrived, and the U.S. hopes to make amends.
The first step toward doing so will be a 10:05 ET game at El Salvador.
Here’s a breakdown of the qualifying format, the U.S. forecast, and other teams to watch in this qualifying group.
The number of teams in the CONCACAF (which stands for Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football) group has grown to eight teams from six for a chance to compete in Qatar.
Each team will play 14 matches (seven home, seven away) between Thursday and March, with the top-three teams earning automatic bids to Qatar.
The teams will each play three games in September, three in October, two in November, two in January, one in February and three in March.
The fourth-place team will have an opportunity to qualify by prevailing in a two-game Intercontinental Playoff (aggregate score from both games) against a team from either Asia, South America or Oceania.
After qualifying ended in 2017, the fourth-place team was Honduras, which lost to Australia 3-1 on aggregate over a two-game playoff and didn’t qualify.
Participating countries will be the U.S., Mexico, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Honduras, Canada, El Salvador and Panama.
What are the chances for the U.S.?
Despite the disappointment of the 2017 qualifying failure, the Americans enter with expectations to get it done and be in Qatar, especially since they are building for when they host a majority of the World Cup games in 2026.
Christian Pulisic (22 years old) became the first American player to ever appear in a Champions League final for Chelsea earlier this year, and headlines a young contingent of American players making significant contributions for European clubs. Others are Josh Sargent (21 years old), Giovanni Reyna (18 years old), Konrad De La Fuente (20 years old), Brenden Aaronson (20 years old), Tyler Adams (22 years old) and Weston McKennie (23 years old). In addition, 18-year-old Ricardo Pepi, who chose to play for the U.S. team instead of Mexico, is another intriguing young player.
The U.S. will further be buoyed by the fact it won the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July with essentially its “B” team, earning a 1-0 win over Mexico in the final.
Pulisic recently tested positive for COVID-19, but is expected to play after clearing protocol.
Following Thursday’s game against El Salvador, the U.S. will host Canada on Sunday night in Nashville and play at Honduras on Sept. 8 in what will be a grueling stretch.
Is Mexico still the favorite in the group?
It would still be hard to disregard El Tri as the best team in the group, despite the surprising loss to the U.S. in the Gold Cup final.
A more veteran and seasoned unit than the United States, Mexico is led by Raul Jimenez, Johan Vasquez, Nestor Arajuo, Andres Guardado, Edson Alvarez and Jesus Corona, all of whom play in Europe.
If Mexico stumbles, Costa Rica, which finished second in the CONCACAF qualifying group in both 2014 and 2018, could be the next team to beat.
Coming off its first-ever World Cup appearance after qualifying third out of the CONCACAF group in 2018, Panama looks for bigger and better things also.
Sleeper team up north?
For the first time since 1997, Canada has advanced to the final stage of World Cup qualifying in CONCACAF.
Much like the U.S. and Mexico, the Canadians are building toward 2026, when the three North American countries will host the World Cup in a joint venture.
Canada has been a much-improved team as of late, beating Costa Rica at the Gold Cup in a quarterfinal and playing Mexico tough in a semifinal before losing, 2-1.
Alphonso Davies, at just 20 years old, is one of the world’s best young midfielders/defenders who plays for legendary Bayern Munich, while Jonathan David is a rising 21-year-old who plays professionally in France.
Cyle Larin (26 years old) and Stephen Eustaquio (24 years old) are two more European club players who are entering the prime of their careers and provide veteran leadership for the Canadians.
The only time Canada ever qualified for the World Cup was in 1986.
More so, if Canada chooses to play home games during the fall and winter months at an outdoor stadium (Canada’s two home games in September are at BMO Field, an outdoor stadium in Toronto), the cold weather won’t be fun for their more southern-based opponents.
That scenario is unlikely in January and February, but more realistic in October, November and March.
The U.S. is employing a similar strategy for its home games against rivals Costa Rica (Oct. 13 in Columbus) and Mexico (Nov. 12 in Cincinnati).
Odds of it being a wee bit chilly for each of those games are pretty good.
Honduras at Canada
United States at El Salvador
Costa Rica at Panama
Jamaica at Mexico
Canada at United States (Nashville)
Honduras at El Salvador
Mexico at Costa Rica
Panama at Jamaica
El Salvador at Canada
United States at Honduras
Mexico at Panama
Jamaica at Costa Rica
Canada at Mexico
Costa Rica at Honduras
Panama at El Salvador
Jamaica at United States (Austin)
Canada at Jamaica
Honduras at Mexico
El Salvador at Costa Rica
United States at Panama
Panama at Canada
Jamaica at Honduras
Mexico at El Salvador
Costa Rica at United States (Columbus)
Costa Rica at Canada
Panama at Honduras
Jamaica at El Salvador
Mexico at United States (Cincinnati)
Mexico at Canada
Honduras at Costa Rica
El Salvador at Panama
United States at Jamaica
Canada at Honduras
El Salvador at United States
Panama at Costa Rica
Mexico at Jamaica
United States at Canada
El Salvador at Honduras
Costa Rica at Mexico
Jamaica at Panama
Canada at El Salvador
Honduras at United States
Panama at Mexico
Costa Rica at Jamaica
Canada at Costa Rica
Honduras at Panama
El Salvador at Jamaica
United States at Mexico
Jamaica at Canada
Mexico at Honduras
Costa Rica at El Salvador
Panama at United States
Canada at Panama
Honduras at Jamaica
El Salvador at Mexico
United States at Costa Rica