Over the next seven weeks, the U.S. soccer team will play in at least five, and potentially eight, competitive matches. They still have ground to make up in World Cup qualifying and will want to improve on their fourth-place finish in the 2015 Gold Cup. It will also be the last time for the national team to convene for significant amount of time before the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
World Cup Qualifiers
The first two matches are World Cup qualifiers, at home tonight against Trinidad and Tobago (8 p.m. ET/FS1) and in Mexico on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET/FS1). After an embarrassing opening two matches that left the Yanks with zero points and cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job, the United States improved their standing in March by drubbing Honduras 6-0 and tying Panama 1-1. They now sit in fourth place, good enough for a World Cup playoff but outside of the automatic qualifying spots. As has become tradition with the U.S. and World Cup qualifiers as of late, they can’t afford to slip up.
The T&T match should be a relatively easy three points. The United States has a great record against the Soca Warriors in qualifying, especially at home. But the match against Mexico at the Estadio Azteca will be a much tougher ask. Mexico has never lost to its northern neighbors in a qualifier at the Azteca. Mexico has looked the stronger of the two nations recently and beat the United States in Ohio when they met in November.
U.S. manager Bruce Arena enters this qualifying round with an almost completely healthy squad, a far cry from the injury-plagued qualifiers in March. The United States still has some breathing room if they only emerge from these games with three points, but they could really use four.
The region’s biennial tournament, the CONCACAF Gold Cup, kicks off on July 7. The United States will play Panama, Martinique, and Nicaragua in the group stage. They’ll look to bounce back from a pitiful 2015 Gold Cup, where they struggled almost every game on their way to a nearly unprecedented fourth-place finish.
In terms of quality, the Gold Cup pales in comparison to the Copa America, European Championships, or even the African Cup of Nations. The United States and Mexico essentially alternate Gold Cup titles, but Mexico has won three of the last four.
Quality aside, it does provide the bigger fish in the region with much-needed competitive matches. And it offers teams like the United States an opportunity to test players who might not get a shot in bigger tournaments or qualifiers. The Gold Cup may be the only chance for some national team aspirants to catch the manager’s eye.
More importantly, the Gold Cup gives the winners a chance to play in the Confederations Cup, a World Cup dress rehearsal that offers even more competitive matches for a region that lacks them. The United States should make it to at least the semifinals, and has a good chance to win it, especially with Mexico having to split its squad to play in the Gold Cup and this year’s Confederations Cup.
These next seven weeks will give Arena and the U.S. team the best chance to finally right a ship that had strayed off course for a large portion of the last two years. They have the talent to do it. Six points, an all-but assured qualification, and a Gold Cup trophy are possible. Three or four points and a trophy are more likely. But the margins are thin.