The United States sits fourth in the six-team qualifying group, with 9 points to Panama’s 10 heading into Friday’s game in Orlando, Fla. The upside is the Americans still control their destiny, with games against a team that has never won a qualifier on American soil (Panama) and the group’s doormat (Trinidad and Tobago).
But — uncomfortably — there is a nonzero chance that the United States still can tumble into a tricky playoff as the fourth-place finisher or, worse, even miss the World Cup altogether, if there are any stumbles in the final two games.
That is why a win on Friday night — preferably by a goal or two, to assuage any potential goal-differential-tiebreaker concerns — will relieve the pressure immensely. And it’s also why Arena wasn’t interested this week in entertaining any alternative scenarios.
“We have no excuses,” Arena said. “We’re not depending on other teams to win games to help us. We’re depending on ourselves.”
How Can I Watch the Game?
Friday’s game is on ESPN2 and Univision. Pregame coverage on ESPN2 begins at 7 p.m. Eastern, though the game actually is not scheduled to kick off until 7:35.
Can the U.S. Really Miss Out Altogether?
Sure. It would take a stunning combination of results, but it’s mathematically possible. If the Americans (improbably) lose twice, and Honduras (perhaps even more improbably) gets a result in either of its games, against Costa Rica and Mexico, the Americans will be watching on television next summer. But that is a debate for Saturday morning.
What Happens If the U.S. Finishes Fourth?
In Concacaf, fourth place is a World Cup lifeline. While the top three teams in the final round of qualifying advance directly to the World Cup in Russia, the fourth-place finisher enters a playoff against the fifth-place team in Asia. That will be either Syria or Australia, who are playing a home-and-home playoff of their own this week. The first leg is Thursday in Malaysia, which has served as Syria’s de facto home in qualifying for more than a year, with the return match in Sydney on Tuesday — hours ahead of the Americans’ decisive game against Trinidad and Tobago. The Concacaf-Asian Football Confederation intercontinental playoff — another home and home series — will take place in November.
Are Other Countries in Similar Spots?
More than a few, and some that might surprise casual fans. The biggest? Lionel Messi and Argentina, which currently sits outside the automatic qualifying places in South America. The good news for Messi — and FIFA, and television executives — is that Argentina still controls its destiny. It hosts fourth-place Peru on Thursday and closes against Ecuador. Chile, the reigning South American champion, might have it worse: it is a point behind Argentina, and closes its campaign at Brazil next week. A couple wins would solve everything for both countries, though, even if one is likely headed to a playoff against New Zealand before booking its place in Russia.
Who Is in the Field Already?
Russia (as host), Brazil, Belgium, Mexico and the four automatic qualifiers from Asia: Iran, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia are the only teams in the field already. In Africa, Nigeria and Tunisia look set to clinch spots, while Senegal and Ghana are in danger of missing out. In Europe, Germany, England and Serbia can qualify directly with wins this week, and France, Poland and Spain are nearly in position to do the same. Those teams likely to find themselves on the outside looking in next week include the Netherlands, which is set to miss its second major championship in a row, and Wales, the darlings of last summer’s Euros, who will be without their injured star Gareth Bale.