Over the next several days, the United States will play its most important World Cup qualifiers in 16 years, taking on Honduras in San Jose, California on Friday, and Panama in Panama City on Tuesday. The United States sits in last place after two losses to open the North American region (CONCACAF) final qualifying round (the six-team “hexagonal”).
They enter this set of matches with a new(ish) manager and a squad beset by absences. U.S. Soccer basically hired Bruce Arena because of his CONCACAF nous, having taken the United States to the World Cup in 2002 and 2006. But he’s coaching his first official international matches in more than a decade. The two matches Arena managed after taking over in November were essentially spring training games. He’s had almost no time with the full squad. He’ll also be under significantly more pressure, with both games essentially must-wins.
Complicating matters further, the team enters Friday’s match with key suspensions and untimely withdrawals. Midfielder Jermaine Jones and defender Timmy Chandler will miss the Honduras match because of yellow card accumulation. Jones should feature against Panama, while Chandler stayed with his club.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan will miss due to the birth of his child. Forward Bobby Wood, versatile midfielder Fabian Johnson, and defenders DeAndre Yedlin and Eric Lichaj all withdrew because of injuries. Forward Jordan Morris and defender John Anthony Brooks are currently question marks as well. Most of these players would have started on Friday, leaving Arena with the unenviable task of shuffling and reshuffling his lineup.
Fortunately, the squad is deep enough (and the region weak enough) to absorb those losses. Veterans Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, and Geoff Cameron should carry the load, as will the in-form Christian Pulisic. Depending on a 34-year-old Dempsey or an 18-year-old Pulisic is less than ideal, however.
There are other reasons for optimism. The cloud that hung over the end of Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign has dissipated. This team usually plays well with their backs against the wall. Most of the squad has experienced the CONCACAF grind. Perhaps most importantly, CONCACAF offers a very forgiving qualifying format: Half of the teams in the Hex automatically qualify, while the fourth-placed team faces a playoff against one of Asia’s qualifiers.
While the Yanks have some breathing room with eight games left on the schedule, it can’t afford to slip up here. They do not want to go to Trinidad and Tobago on the last day of qualifying needing a win (although it’s worked out before). Nor do they want to find themselves in a situation similar to Mexico’s in 2014, relying on other results to push them through.
In all likelihood, the United States will get the results they need. Six points isn’t out of the question, and would provide significant relief for the squad and its manager. But anything short of four points from these next two games could see them officially enter crisis mode.