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 6, Honduras 0 - March 24, 2017 in San Jose, Calif.
After dropping its opening Final Round qualifiers to Mexico and Costa Rica, the USA entered the March slate of games with the necessity to #Get3 points at home against Honduras. Under the guidance of Arena, the team showed up to Avaya Stadium in a big way, using goals from Sebastian Lletget, Michael Bradley, Christian Pulisic and a hat trick from Clint Dempsey to lay down a 6-0 drubbing on Los Catrachos.
The resounding result came despite a number of injury setbacks, showed the response of the team to new leadership under Arena and helped symbolize the MNT's turnaround in its goal of qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
WATCH: USA Turns Things Around With 6-0 Win vs. Honduras
Panama 1, USA 1 - March 28, 2017 in Panama City, Panama
Four days later, the USA traveled to take on a Panama side that it was in direct competition with for one of the top three spots in the Hex. What transpired at Estadio Rommel Fernandez was a cagey and physical match, high on atmosphere, but devoid of many chances.
A moment of brilliance from Christian Pulisic saw the U.S. jump on board first. The young attacker chased down a ball up the right side before dispossession Felipe Baloy and shaking off a second defender before centering for Clint Dempsey who scraped home the opening goal in the 39th minute. Just as the U.S. looked headed to halftime, Panama equalized when a long throw in led to a break in the defense and allowed Gabriel Gomez to put home the equalizer from close range.
Just after the break, Pulisic saw a great volley turned away by Baloy, while goalkeeper Tim Howard came up with two big stops to preserve the 1-1 draw and an important away point.
After starting the March qualifying set in last place, the win and draw handed the USA four crucial points and moved the side up to fourth heading into June.
WATCH: U.S. Battles Hard for Important Away Point in Panama
USA 2, Trinidad & Tobago 0 - June 8, 2017 in Commerce City, Colo.
With momentum for March, the U.S. took a high-altitude approach to its June set of qualifiers, playing a warmup friendly against Venezuela in Sandy, Utah, before taking on Trinidad & Tobago at the 5,280 feet provided by Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. Though favored against the Soca Warriors, the USA was left frustrated in the first half due to the stellar play of Jan-Michael Williams and entered the locker room knotted at 0-0.
The deadlock was broken in the 52nd minute when a clever pass from Jorge Villafaña found Christian Pulisic who poked home the opening goal. Ten minutes later, Jozy Altidore cleverly picked out Pulisic's run before the attacker slotted the icing goal past Williams, giving the USA a 2-0 victory and another crucial three points at home.
WATCH: Pulisic Brace Hands U.S. 2-0 Win vs. Soca Warriors
Mexico 1, USA 1 - June 11, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico
With nearly two weeks of altitude adjustment under its belt, the U.S. Men's National Team headed to the vaunted Estadio Azteca to take on rivals Mexico on Matchday 6. A young U.S. midfield featuring Christian Pulisic, Paul Arriola and Kellyn Acosta was joined by captain Michael Bradley, who opened the scoring with a stunning goal just six minutes in. The veteran midfielder anticipated a pass in midfield, quickly countered and sent a 40-yard chip over Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa.
The U.S. continued attacking and came close again through Bobby Wood in the 23rd minute. The saved attempt was quickly collected by Ochoa who sent an outlet pass through midfield to start a Mexico counter and led to the equalizer through Carlos Vela. Both teams would trade chances the rest of the way and Bradley's second effort from distance rang off the post, but in the end, the sides would share the spoils, giving the USA its third all-time draw in World Cup Qualifying at Estadio Azteca.
WATCH: Bradley Chip Spurs USA to Road Point at Azteca
USA 0, Costa Rica 2 - Sept. 1, 2017
Riding high off strong performances during June's World Cup Qualifiers and July's Gold Cup championship, the MNT welcomed fellow CONCACAF power Costa Rica to Red Bull Arena. While the U.S. had a number of dangerous opportunities, they were thwarted by the stellar play of goalkeeper Keylor Navas and an unlikely brace from Ticos and San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Ureña in a 2-0 loss.
WATCH: MNT Falls 2-0 to Costa Rica on Matchday 7
Honduras 1, USA 1 - Sept. 5, 2017
Thanks to the home defeat vs. Costa Rica and other results on Matchday 7, the U.S. found itself with little room for error when it visited Honduras on Sept. 5. A mid-afternoon kickoff meant the players on the field were dealing with heat and humidity that made the temperature feel like it was over 100 degrees. Despite that factor, the MNT looked steady and comfortable through the early going, only to be undone when Rommel Quioto put the home side up 1-0 in the 27th minute. Nail biting moments ensued, but the USA stayed composed and earned a late free kick when Christian Pulisic was upended about 10 yards from the penalty area. Kellyn Acosta's ensuing take was well saved by Honduras 'keeper Luis Lopez, but a scramble to the right of goal involving Matt Besler and Jordan Morris keeping the ball alive before Bobby Wood buried the dramatic 85th minute equalizer. The goal stood up through the remaining minutes as the U.S. earned an important 1-1 draw.
With Honduras sitting level with the U.S. going into the match, the late goal was crucial in making sure the U.S stayed in control of its own destiny going into October's final set of matches.
WATCH: How They Scored - Bobby Wood's Important Equalizer in Honduras
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. Last go around, the USA also played a major role in denying Panama a potential place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup when Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson's stoppage time strikes doomed the nation to just missing out on CONCACAF's fourth-place playoff spot. The result has appeared to motivate an improved Panama side, with Los Canaleros playing the USA to four consecutive 1-1 draws, including March's result in Panama City, ever since.
The stakes for USA-Panama, presented by Volpi Foods, are similar to that 2013 match. A Panama win on U.S. soil would see the side book its first World Cup appearance, while a U.S. victory would push the MNT two points ahead of Los Canaleros, keeping the team in the driver's seat for its Matchday 10 visit to Trinidad & Tobago.
WATCH: U.S. sees off Panama during 2013 Hex in Seattle
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Panama: 5-0-2
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 in November 2015 following a 0-0 draw in its semifinal round match at Hasely Crawford Stadium.
Similar to the match in 1989, this last qualifying game will have huge stakes for the United States, who will no doubt need some kind of result in Trinidad in order to book its ticket to Russia. Not so similar is the fact that the game will be played in tiny Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, approximately 45 minutes away from Hasely Crawford Stadium in the capital, Port of Spain.
WATCH: Paul Caligiuri sends USA to first World Cup since 1950
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 13-1-3
All-Time Away WCQ Record at Trinidad & Tobago: 4-1-2
Originally published on October 9, 2015
Leading up to the U.S. friendly against Mexico at Estadio Azteca on Aug. 15, 2012, Michael Orozco told himself he wanted to make history.
“If I get five minutes or 90, I was going to give it my all,” he told ussoccer.com.
Orozco would get around 13 minutes, entering the match with the score locked 0-0 and around the time ESPN commentator Ian Darke mentioned that the U.S. would be pleased to get a draw out of the friendly fixture.
Stormy skies gather over Estadio Azteca ahead of the USMNT's first win on Mexican soil.
A result wouldn’t have been bad. It was something that had only occurred once before for the MNT, coming in a 0-0 draw during 1997 World Cup Qualifying.
Shortly after Darke’s declaration, Brek Shea nutmegged a Mexico defender, got to the end line and centered for Terrence Boyd. A clever back heel from the U.S. forward put the ball on the doorstep for Orozco, who sneaked in to poke home some U.S. history.
The U.S. would play out the final 10 minutes and stoppage time to earn the 1-0 win, its first victory on Mexican soil in 25 tries (11 of which came at the vaunted Estadio Azteca).
Originally published on April 14, 2015.
History, geography and sociology have long dictated the soccer rivalry between the U.S. and Mexico. And while it’s always been somewhat heated, only in the last 20 years has it been anywhere near an even affair.
The numbers clearly reflect it as Mexico held a daunting 28-6-9 edge over its neighbors to the north prior to the turn of the century. And while the U.S. went winless against Mexico in the final seven matchups of the 1990s, one result in that span, the 0-0 World Cup qualifying draw at Estadio Azteca in 1997, set a course correction in the series that has pushed the U.S. to a 13-7-5 record against its rivals since the turn of the century.
In that match, the U.S. earned its first result in Mexico’s vaunted soccer cathedral, despite playing a man down for nearly an hour after defender Jeff Agoos was sent off for an altercation with Pavel Pardo in the 32nd minute.
“We showed a lot of resolve in that match,” said Cobi Jones who went 56 minutes that day. “Either at the youth or full team level, a lot of us had been part of tough results against Mexico, but the experiences gained built towards us earning a historic result that day.”
An unused substitute in that match as he was beginning to carve out his role in the U.S. team, forward Brian McBride says the result gave the team confidence, but also earned the team recognition where they didn’t have it before.
“The last 15-20 minutes the Mexican fans are jeering Mexico when they have the ball and actually cheering us on,” said McBride. “The first time we actually heard it in that game, we all looked at each other and said, ‘what’s happening?’ At that moment, we all said that Mexican fans respect U.S. Soccer, whereas before there wasn’t a lot of respect. I think that translates into our attitude, how we went about handling them. It affirmed it, once you get affirmation, we continued to grow.”
Under the guidance of former head coach Bruce Arena, the U.S. opened up the new millennium with two friendly wins against Mexico, building momentum towards a home World Cup qualifying match in Columbus, Ohio, on Feb. 28, 2001, and the start of a great U.S. Soccer tradition.
The smaller confines of Columbus Crew Stadium (now MAPFRE Stadium) and a kickoff temperature of 28 degrees combined to give the U.S. a significant home-field advantage, but things didn’t go to plan early on.
Though not malicious, in his debut as a villain to American fans everywhere, Mexican midfielder Rafael Marquez clashed heads with McBride on a 50/50 challenge at midfield, causing the starting U.S. forward to make way for Josh Wolff early in the match.
There was little question about Marquez’s intent in the 36th minute, when in a sign of things to come, the future Mexico captain came through with a late, high challenge to chop down Wolff as he streaked through the midfield.
“I think I’m still feeling that foul,” Wolff joked. “Guys like Rafa and Claudio Suarez; there was viciousness with those games and violence at times.”
Though Wolff was alright, just before halftime, U.S. captain Claudio Reyna pulled up with a groin injury and Wolff’s childhood friend Clint Mathis also entered the match.
In what would become both players’ coming out party on the national team stage, Mathis sent a cutting ball over the Mexico backline and into Wolff’s stride. The 23-year-old ran on, evaded goalkeeper Jorge Campos who’d come well out of his box and tapped into an empty net to take the score to 1-0.
- READ MORE: All About the USA's Rivalry with Mexico
“I’m sure they weren’t that worried about me or Clint coming in as reserves,” said Wolff, who was making just his fourth U.S. appearance in the match. “I was younger, had played against the Mexican youth national teams and had a good experience with the Olympic team, but I wouldn’t expect them to know that much about me or Clint, outside us being young players that are just breaking in.”
Late in the match, Wolff beat two Mexican defenders on the right before breaking into the box and centering for Earnie Stewart who finished from 12 yards out, creating the first of four staple “Dos a Cero” score lines in home World Cup qualifying matches against Mexico.
The victories over Mexico and the belief Bruce Arena instilled in his team built towards the rivalry’s biggest match to date in the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
“When we knew we were playing them, we were overjoyed,” McBride said. “We knew them and we knew we could beat them. Any given day, anyone can beat anyone, but we were very happy to see them.
“Bruce has a confidence,” he continued “The way he goes about himself, it rubs off on you. He made some changes, moved things around all with the idea we were going to get the result.”
Perhaps remembering Wolff’s breakout performance 14 months earlier, one of Arena’s changes was starting Wolff, who’d played just eight minutes in the group stage, up top with McBride.
It took the forward tandem just eight minutes to link up for the game’s first goal as McBride quickly played a restart for Reyna on the right. The captain charged towards the end line before playing a square ball for Wolff who used the outside of his right boot to lay off what McBride called “the most perfect ball for a first-time strike”, as the veteran forward buried it past Oscar Perez for a 1-0 lead.
Chief among players Mexico would deem a villain, Landon Donovan would score the most significant of his six against El Tri off a cross from Eddie Lewis in the second half to take things to 2-0.
As time went on, the U.S. style of play, sitting in then springing quick counter attacks, frustrated Mexico throughout the match, and that’s where Jones earned his hero status in the rivalry.
Having played a mostly substitute role in his final years with the national team, Jones’s fresh legs kept pressure all over the field in the mid-day sun. He hadn’t been on for 10 minutes before Marquez played U.S. villain again, this time as Jones went up for a free header, the Mexican captain led with his studs up into Jones’ torso, before delivering a vicious head butt to the veteran winger.
Marquez immediately saw red, one of five in his international career and the first of two against the United States, while the dismissal effectively ended any chance Mexico had at a comeback.
“That was the moment where that all started with him,” Jones said. “He’s the captain of the team. He’s played at big clubs before and since, but he’s never known how to handle the high pressure situation of playing his arch-rival on the international stage and losing. That was the big issue for him and we see how he reacted to it.”
Moments later as Jones took the ball into the corner to kill off stoppage time, both Salvador Camona and Sigifredo Mercado came through and stomped on both of Jones’ legs.
“You could see the frustrations in their players because they couldn’t find a way to beat us,” Jones said. “Luckily, the referee blew his whistle not too long after.”
While the U.S. players celebrated a first trip to the World Cup quarterfinals, sportsmanship didn’t exactly rule the post-match festivities, as most Mexican players walked directly off the field.
“We were also ticked off at the fact that they weren’t necessarily respectful in loss,” McBride remembered. “There were plenty of times where we lost games where we thought we should have done better in, but still we never tried to injure anybody, never tried to not shake hands. That part was disappointing. Having said that, it’s the heat of the moment - a huge game for them and for us of course, and I saw some of the guys a month later and they were awesome.”
Today, a younger crop of players has brought a mutual respect between the two teams that wasn’t there in the past. And while the U.S. has leveled the series over the last 17 years, Jones appealed to the younger generation to shake off any complacency heading into a match against Mexico.
“As far as the passion is concerned, I hope the younger players understand the history and tradition there,” he said. “I hope they take a look back to see what it’s about and have an underlying need and want to beat Mexico. If they take it too lightly, they have to understand that the other side will take advantage.”Read more
Despite being North American neighbors, the first meeting between the United States and Mexico actually took place on the other side of the Atlantic. Played on May 24, 1934 in Rome, the game was a one-off match – essentially the USA’s first World Cup qualifier – for the right to play in the second FIFA World Cup, which was set to kick off days later in venues across Italy.
Playing in front of 10,000 spectators, including Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the Americans rode a four-goal performance from Aldo “Buff” Donelli to defeat Mexico 4-2 and earn a place in the 16-team field at the 1934 FIFA World Cup.
You would hope the 11 players that came away victorious that day cherished the memory in Rome, because as big as the result was, it would take another 46 years before the USA would defeat Mexico again.
Though 17 of those 24 matches were played on Mexican soil, that winless streak against our neighbors to the south is by far the longest against any one opponent in team history, both in terms of number of games and years,. It fortunately ended on Nov. 23, 1980, when the U.S. used a pair of goals from Steve Moyers to defeat Mexico 2-1 in another Qualifying match, this time for the 1982 FIFA World Cup.
With Mexico already booking its ticket to the next round of Qualifying and the USA already eliminated, from a competitive standpoint, the match was meaningless. However, whether or not they realized it, the 2,126 fans in attendance at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium witnessed history that night, and to this day are among the few Americans that saw the USA’s 43-year winless streak against Mexico come to an end.
Though the USA and Mexico met only once more during the decade, the dam had been cracked. With 1990 marking the MNT’s first appearance in the World Cup in 40 years, the 1980s also served as a transitional phase in the rivalry with Mexico as a new generation of American players began to reap the benefits of greater emphasis on the game here at home to lay the foundation for future triumphs.
The first in a series of successes came during the semifinals of the 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Led by former Mexico head coach Bora Milutinovic, the USA used second-half strikes from John Doyle and Peter Vermes to stun El Tri 2-0 in front of a pro-Mexico crowd of 41,103 at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, and went on to win the tournament’s inaugural title.
WATCH: USA Defeats Mexico 2-0 in 1991 CONCACAF Gold Cup SemifinalRead more
Originally published on October 7, 2015.
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but with games played in the middle of the night back home and in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-7-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more