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The question of whether the United States will rescue its World Cup qualifying campaign and reach the tournament for an eighth straight time, or falter and deliver a painful blow to soccer’s momentum in this country, will soon be answered.
The solution will hinge, ultimately, not upon how good the U.S. is but how tough it is, how much character it has and how it handles the stress of having everything on the line.
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That is because the time for the U.S. to show it was the best team in the CONCACAF region heading into Russia next summer has past, that opportunity lost. Mexico and Costa Rica have run away with qualifying, with the former having already secured its spot in the tournament and the latter moving to the verge of it by beating the U.S. on Friday in New Jersey.
Now is the time to battle and scrap over the line. Three teams from CONCACAF reach the World Cup and a fourth goes into a playoff, making this perhaps the most forgiving confederation in world soccer.
Heading to Honduras for Tuesday’s critical eighth game of the 10-match final qualifying campaign, the U.S. has used virtually all of that latitude, and is running out of second chances.
“We are going to find out, aren’t we?” said head coach Bruce Arena when asked if he believed his men had the character to cope with their troubled situation. The U.S. and Honduras are tied with eight points, with Panama at seven, with three games to go.
For those who saw Arena’s opening game of his second stint in charge in March, Honduras might seem to be a pushover. That game six months ago ended in a 6-0 victory, but going to Central America is a different proposition.
Four years ago, the last phase of the campaign to reach the 2014 World Cup ended in defeat in San Pedro Sula, the same location of Tuesday’s game. The crowd, as then, will be hostile, the state of the field terrible, the temperature high thanks to a mid-afternoon kickoff designed to maximize discomfort for the visitors.
“I don’t subscribe to this notion that CONCACAF is an easy place to qualify from,” captain Michael Bradley said. “There are difficult paces to go, difficult teams to face and tough challenges to overcome.”
Things were looking fine until Friday. Memories of the two defeats suffered under Jurgen Klinsmann to open qualifying were largely erased when Arena went undefeated in his first 14 games, including four World Cup qualifiers.
But losing at home has dire consequences, especially in CONCACAF, where the advantages of hosting are more pronounced than in other regions. The U.S. has never lost two home qualifiers and still reached the World Cup.
“It is a good opportunity now (to show character),” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “The pressure is on us but the pressure is always on us. We have got to go there and get a result. It is going to be very tight. The objective is (by) early on in November to be qualified for a World Cup. That is the plan.”
November is when the playoff, against the fifth-best team from the Asian region would be held, on a home-and-home format.
Three wins to close out qualifying will be enough to get the job done automatically for the U.S. The visit to Honduras will be followed by a home game against Panama in Orlando in October, then a trip to Trinidad and Tobago, currently the weakest team in the group.
Keeping matters in its own hands is vital, a luxury that would be erased with a defeat in San Pedro Sula.
American soccer has been on a steady rise for a long while now, yet it still relies on a significant boost in interest from being involved in the World Cup every four years. Missing out on that would be a huge setback, both for the state of the sport in America and for the current national team and its younger players.
All that is on the line now. Funny things happen late in qualifying. Teams that have already qualified sometimes rest players, something concerning to the U.S., with Honduras due to play Mexico and Panama to face Costa Rica in the last round of games.
So be it. Sooner or later the U.S. needs to fix its own problem, and the time to do it is now.