The U.S. Men’s National Team has played in the last seven World Cups – one of only six nations in the world to accomplish that feat – and some people naturally assume that every four years the U.S. is just penciled into the bracket. Not so!
In fact, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup out of CONCACAF is a marathon. Since the current qualifying format was adopted for the 1998 tournament, the U.S. has had to play 16-18 matches spanning two years in order to book its place in the FIFA World Cup.
In the case of the current cycle, the MNT began its quest to qualify for Russia 2018 when it started play in CONCACAF’s Semifinal Round in November 2015. Having finished on top of a group that also featured Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the U.S. now finds itself in the CONCACAF's Final Round of World Cup Qualifying.
The six-team group, nicknamed “The Hex” (short for Hexagonal), pits the top two teams from each of CONCACAF’s three semifinal groups – in this case, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago and USA -- in a home-and-away mini-league which began in November 2016 and concludes in October 2017. At the end of the 10-game schedule, the top three teams in The Hex automatically qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Meanwhile, the fourth-place team from CONCACAF will go into an intercontinental playoff with the fifth-place finisher from the Asian Football Confederation’s own qualifying tournament. The winner over two games will be 32nd and final entrant into the World Cup.
Got all that?
Here’s a breakdown of the 10-game schedule the MNT will have to navigate to qualify for its eighth consecutive FIFA World Cup, with a little history added in.
USA 1, Mexico 2 - Nov. 11, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio
Having defeated Mexico 2-0 in each of its previous four Final Round matches played in Columbus, Ohio, the MNT went back to MAPFRE Stadium in November, where they fell 2-1 to a talented Mexico side.
A deflected effort from Miguel Layun gave Mexico a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute, before the U.S. suffered another setback when goalkeeper Tim Howard suffered a fractured right adductor while taking a routine goal kick and had to leave the match in the 40th minute. After halftime, the U.S. bounced back through Bobby Wood's 49th minute strike and had chances to push ahead that came up empty. Just as it looked like both teams would settle for a 1-1 draw, Mexico captain Rafael Marquez headed home an 89th minute corner kick from Layun to give El Trí all three points.
WATCH: U.S. Falls 2-1 to Mexico in November
Costa Rica 4, USA 0 - Nov. 15, 2016 in San Jose, Costa Rica
Four days after falling to Mexico, the U.S. traveled to Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica for a match against Los Ticos. The MNT's success rate in Costa Rica had never been great and while the U.S. nearly went into halftime tied 0-0, but Johan Venegas pushed the home side ahead in the 44th minute. Costa Rica then added strikes from Cristian Bolańos and a brace from Joel Campbell to run out 4-0 winners.
In the days following the match, Jurgen Klinsmann was replaced by former MNT head coach Bruce Arena, who is charged with righting the ship for the U.S. to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
USA vs. Honduras - March 24, 2017
With just eight previous qualifying meetings, there’s much less history with Honduras than some of the MNT’s other Hex opponents. That said, Honduras does have its place in the USA’s World Cup Qualifying history thanks to its 3-2 victory in 2001 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. That result ended the MNT’s then record 19-match home unbeaten streak in qualifying and also stands as the USA’s last home qualifying defeat. The team will enter Final Round qualifying riding a 30-match home unbeaten run dating back to that 2001 loss.
WATCH: Honduras hands the U.S. its first home World Cup Qualifying loss since 1985All-Time WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 5-2-1
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 2-1-0
Panama vs. USA - March 28, 2017
Having only first met Panama during qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. has become better acquainted with Los Canaleros in recent years. While qualifying visits to Central America are far from easy, the MNT has fared reasonably well in Panama, going 2-0-1 in its three contests at Estadio Rommel Fernandez. The most recent meeting will be fresh on the minds of Panama after the U.S. eliminated them from contention for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in heart-breaking fashion. With only a few ticks remaining on the clock and Panama’s dream of reaching its first World Cup moments from being realized, goals by Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson elevated the MNT to a 3-2 win on Oct. 15, 2013. Adding a bit of irony, the USA’s comeback win handed its nemesis Mexico a lifeline in their bid to advance to Brazil.
WATCH: U.S. eliminates Panama from World Cup contention in 2013
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Panama: 5-0-1
All-Time Away WCQ Records at Panama: 2-0-1
USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago - June 7-8, 2017
The U.S. will be best acquainted with Trinidad & Tobago after facing the Soca Warriors twice in the semifinal round. While T&T has offered tough challenges over the years, the MNT has dominated the series overall. The 4-0 win in September in Jacksonville moved the USA’s all-time home World Cup Qualifying record to 8-0-1 against the Caribbean nation. The matchup will bring back fond memories for Jozy Altidore, who in the 2008 edition of the series became the youngest player in history to score a hat trick for the U.S. Men’s National Team, tallying all three goals in the dominating 3-0 victory on April 1, 2009, in Nashville, Tenn.
WATCH: Kljestan, Altidore, Arriola lead MNT past T&T in September
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 12-1-3
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 8-0-1
Mexico vs. USA - June 11-12, 2017
The second half of the cycle begins with the U.S. visiting Mexico and very likely the daunting Estadio Azteca. The heat and humidity of Mexico City in June combined with the 7,380 feet of altitude will certainly be payback for the potentially cold temperatures of Columbus in November. While the more than 100,000 fans packed into the arena create an even greater home-field advantage, the U.S. has put chinks in the armor in recent years. Having first earned a 0-0 World Cup Qualifying draw there in 1997, the MNT collected its first win against Mexico on their own soil in a 1-0 friendly win in 2012, and went on to secure a point from a 0-0 draw in 2013 during final round qualifying.
WATCH: U.S. earns crucial 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca in 2013
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Mexico: 6-16-6
All-Time Away WCQ Record at Mexico: 0-13-2
USA vs. Costa Rica - September 1, 2017
Just as the United States has found little qualifying success in Costa Rica, so the story goes for Los Ticos on U.S. soil, where the MNT holds a 6-1-2 all-time advantage. Costa Rica’s last two qualifying visits have provided memorable moments. In 2009, Jonathan Bornstein’s game-tying goal in the 95th minute not only ensured the U.S. remained unbeaten in home World Cup Qualifying, but also helped Honduras leapfrog Costa Rica for CONCACAF’s third World Cup Qualifying place for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
In March 2013, the U.S. earned a 1-0 home win against Costa Rica in a match dubbed the “Snowclasico” for its blustery winter conditions at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. As field conditions worsened during the match, referee Joel Aguilar halted the game in the 55th minute to allow the stadium grounds crew to clear the lines on the field of snow. A gutsy performance saw the U.S. win 1-0 behind a first-half goal from Clint Dempsey as Costa Rica departed Colorado with jittery teeth and a bitter taste in their mouth.
WATCH: MNT grinds it out in the snow vs. Costa Rica
U.S. All-Time WCQ Record vs. Costa Rica: 6-10-3
U.S. All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Costa Rica: 6-1-2
Honduras vs. USA - September 5, 2017
Interestingly, Honduras is the only Hex opponent that the U.S. has won against on the road more times than they have at home. The series dates back to a 1-0 victory in San Pedro Sula in 1965 and has seen the U.S. earn two more wins at Estadio Olimpico – 2-1 in 2001 and a 3-2 result in 2009 in a game that feature two goals from Conor Casey and a Landon Donovan free – as well as a late penalty miss by Honduran striker Carlos Pavon - which clinched a berth for the United States at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Still, the U.S. will return looking to avenge its last meeting there. In the blistering heat of San Pedro Sula – matched only by the intensity of their fans both inside and outside the stadium – the United States suffered a 2-1 defeat to open the final round of qualifying in 2013.
WATCH: U.S. earns 2010 World Cup berth in San Pedro Sula
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 5-2-1
U.S. All-Time Away WCQ Records at Honduras: 3-1-1
October 6, 2017 - USA vs. Panama
Historically speaking, the MNT will still be in need of points to qualify when they host Los Canaleros on Matchday 9. The U.S. has won all three of its previous home World Cup Qualifying matches against Panama, outscoring the Central American side 10-0 in process. Nonetheless, the USA must remain vigilant: Panama has earned two consecutive draws on U.S. soil and won the Third Place match of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in penalties. The 2004 meeting in qualifying added to the U.S. history books when after entering in the 65th minute, Eddie Johnson ripped off three straight goals to become the first player in MNT history to record a hat trick as a substitute. The U.S. ended with a 6-0 win.
WATCH: U.S. sees off Panama during 2013 Hex in Seattle
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Panama: 5-0-1
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Panama: 3-0-0
October 10, 2017 - Trinidad & Tobago vs. USA
In 1989, the MNT visited Trinidad & Tobago on the final day of World Cup Qualifying knowing that only a win would take the USA to its first World Cup since 1950. On that day, the task of winning away in Port of Spain was no foregone conclusion, and Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard ‘around the world’ launched the modern era of U.S. Soccer. Flash forward almost 30 years, and anything less than three points there hasn’t met expectations. The MNT learned that lesson last November following a 0-0 draw in its semifinal round match at Hasely Crawford Stadium. With competition in CONCACAF at its fiercest, the U.S. could very well enter the final game of the Hex needing a result to book passage to Russia.
WATCH: Paul Caligiuri sends USA to first World Cup since 1950
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 12-1-3
All-Time Away WCQ Record at Trinidad & Tobago: 4-1-2