The two years it takes to negotiate the path to the World Cup is a marathon and it requires a host of different contributors to get to the finish line. There will be some who start but don’t finish, some who finish but don’t start, and some will go wire-to-wire. A total of 38 players appeared in a qualifier during the last cycle, which is about part for the course since 2000.
The winding “Road to Russia” begins for the MNT on Friday, Nov. 13 against St. Vincent and the Grenadines and history tells us not everyone that takes the field in St. Louis will be part of the 23-man squad should the team qualify for Russia 2018. Only five of the guys who played in the first qualifier against Antigua and Barbuda in 2012 actually appeared in the World Cup in Brazil in 2014.
When the U.S. ended its World Cup drought by booking a ticket to Italia ’90, it used 28 players over the course of the 10-game, year-long qualifying process. With CONCACAF shifting to a longer qualifying process ahead of the 1998 World Cup, a minimum of 34 players have taken part in each successful cycle, with a high of 46 being used in 2006.
Qualifying Cycle Games Played Players Used
1990: 10 28
1998: 16 34
2002: 16 38
2006: 18 46
2010: 18 43
2014: 16 38
Because of the nature of the process, every player’s qualifying story is different. Here are some of the most interesting “twists and turns” MNT players have experienced in qualification:
“The big goal became his last”
Panama 1, USA 1 - September 8, 2004
After taking four points to begin Semifinal Round qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the USA looked like it would suffer its first loss of the cycle when Panama’s Roberto Brown popped up with a 69th minute strike for los Canaleros. Trailing late on the water-logged pitch at Estadio Rommel Fernandez , U.S. coach Bruce Arena relied on a 91st minute strike from the team’s all-time cap winner Cobi Jones – a veteran of two previous qualifying cycles -- to earn a 1-1 draw in Panama City. The goal was the final international strike of Jones’s career and came in the second to last of his record 164 caps.
“Super Sub Makes History”
USA 6, Panama 0 - October 13, 2004
The start to Eddie Johnson’s international career would be a dream for most players. Out of the gate, he found his first goal during his first cap, coming off the bench in a 2-0 away qualifying win at El Salvador. In his second appearance a month later, Johnson set an unprecedented mark when he became the first substitute in MNT history to score a hat trick in a 6-0 thumping of Panama at RFK Stadium. With the victory, the MNT clinched a spot in the following year’s Final Round qualifying. Johnson became the first MNT player 1968 to score a hat trick in a World Cup qualifier and just the third all-time.
Honduras 2, USA 3 – October 10, 2009
After earning 16 points from the first eight matches of Final Round qualifying in 2009, the U.S. went on the road to Honduras knowing a win in San Pedro Sula would qualify the team for its sixth straight FIFA World Cup. The opening two goals in the dramatic 3-2 away victory would come from an unlikely source in forward Conor Casey, who was making just his second appearance of the Hexagonal. The two strikes also stood as his only two international goals. While he was named Man of the Match in the crucial game in Honduras, Casey was one of the final cuts to the U.S. World Cup roster in 2010 as Bob Bradley elected to go with forwards that were in the best scoring form with their clubs at the time.
“No qualifying, no problem”
While a vast majority of players that make a final World Cup roster played some role in the team qualifying, each cycle since 1990 has also seen at least one players make the squad that had no part in helping the team get there.
Prior to 2002, Pablo Mastroeni had just two appearances with the MNT. That January, the midfield destroyer starred for the U.S. at the CONCACAF Gold Cup and effectively booked his ticket to South Korea. Six months on from holding less than a handful of caps, Mastroeni was starting in midfield for the U.S. in victories against Portugal and Mexico.
More recently, youngsters John Brooks, Julian Green and DeAndre Yedlin all made contributions at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil despite not making any qualifying appearances. Brooks memorably rose above the rest to head home the game-winning goal in the MNT’s 2-1 victory against Ghana. Green scored off his first touch in the 2-1 extra time loss to Belgium and Yedlin proved an important substitute in three of the team’s matches last summer.
Join the U.S. Men’s National Team as they compete in their first match of the 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers when they go head to head against St. Vincent & the Grenadines on Nov. 13 at Busch Stadium, St. Louis. The match will be broadcast at 5:30 p.m. CT on ESPN2, WatchESPN, UniMas and UDN.