Nearly five years after the United States men’s national soccer team famously blew a spot in the 2018 World Cup by losing to a vastly inferior Trinidad and Tobago squad in October of 2017 in the final game of qualifying, the moment of redemption has finally arrived for the Americans.
The USMNT enters its final three-game window of qualifying for this year’s event in Qatar, with a road game at rival Mexico on Thursday, a home game in Orlando against Panama on Sunday, and a road game at Costa Rica next Wednesday.
Here is where things stand with the U.S. as it hopes to avoid a similar fate from the debacle in 2017.
The U.S. is in a solid spot to qualify, but not a great one.
In the eight-team CONCACAF group, the top-three finishers automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth-place finisher competes in a one-game playoff in June against what will likely be New Zealand for another spot in Qatar.
The Americans currently sit in a tie with Mexico for second place with 21 points, four points behind group-leading Canada, which is on the cusp of qualifying for that nation’s second all-time World Cup appearance (1986 was the only other time the Canadians qualified).
The U.S. has a three-goal advantage in goal differential over Mexico, and thus, technically is in the second spot.
Right behind is Panama in fourth with 17 points and Costa Rica with 16 points.
However, the U.S. is entering its hardest qualifying window with games against the three teams behind it, two of which are on the road.
Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica will each be at home for two of their final three qualifying games.
The Americans simply didn’t do enough in road games at Panama, Jamaica and El Salvador (0 wins, 2 combined points, 1 total goal scored), and at home against Canada (1-1 tie), to get themselves in a more comfortable position.
Injuries have left the U.S. in a world of hurt.
The best player for the U.S. during the qualifying cycle, midfielder Weston McKennie, is out with a broken foot suffered playing for his club team in Italy last month.
Also out are three other players who have started for the U.S. and been mainstays for their respective club teams in Europe -- forward Brendan Aaronson (knee), defender Sergino Dest (thigh) and goalie Matt Turner (foot/ankle).
If there’s good news, midfielder Gio Reyna, one of the program’s best young midfielders who plays in Germany, is back from a hamstring injury after not playing at all throughout qualifying since it began in September.
It will likely all come down to Orlando.
The U.S. has never won a World Cup qualifier game in Mexico, so barring history being made by an undermanned U.S. squad, the best result to expect there is a draw.
Meanwhile, Panama opens its final window with a home game against the worst team in the group, Honduras.
Assuming Panama takes care of business and pulls within one or two points of the U.S., that means Sunday’s game at Exploria Stadium in Orlando between the U.S. and Panama could determine a qualifying spot.
A U.S. win would mean Panama couldn’t catch the Americans regardless of what happens in the final game for each (U.S. at Costa Rica; Panama at home to Canada).
The only hope Costa Rica has of overtaking the Americans is by winning all three of its remaining games (home to Canada, at El Salvador, home to the U.S.) and hoping the U.S. doesn’t earn at least four points.
If the U.S. enters the final game at Costa Rica needing a draw or a win to qualify, that would be a problem.
Will the scoring woes continue for the U.S.?
The Americans may be plus-9 in goal differential, but the offense has still been a frustrating mess, despite having some young, dynamic players who suit up for clubs in Europe.
Take away the seven combined goals scored in two games against last-place Honduras, and the U.S. has scored nine goals in the other nine games of qualifying to this point.
The Americans have been shut out three times.
Even factoring in the Honduras games, the 1.45 goals-per-game average is the worst it has been for the U.S. squad since the qualifying cycle for the 1990 World Cup.