The MNT's qualifying path has had its hurdles at the semifinal stage
People always say that the real danger in CONCACAF qualifying for the World Cup isn’t in the final round – also known at the Hex – where six teams compete for three spots, plus an additional chance at a playoff. It’s the semifinal round that is fraught with the most peril. With only four teams in a group and two advancing, the margin for error is a lot slimmer. And that means a tough opponent on the road, a draw instead of a win, a bad call by a referee could be the difference between going on and going home.
While the USA is one of only three nations to advance from the semifinal round to the final of qualifying in all five cycles since the format was introduced in 1998, that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. In fact, the MNT has twice found itself in danger of getting knocked out from the semifinal stage, experiencing some nervy moments in matches originally thought of as walk overs…
2002 Semifinal Round
The semifinal round is a total of 540 minutes of soccer for each team. After 512 minutes played and 27 to go, the United States was on its way to being knocked out. It took a post and some late-game heroics to turn the tide that eventually ended with the USA’s quarterfinal run in the 2002 World Cup, its best finish in 72 years.
Matched with Costa Rica, Guatemala and Barbados, the MNT’s Semifinal group seemed manageable enough, though back-to-back matches on the road to Guatemala and Costa Rica to open the round proved quite difficult.
Visiting the jungle climes of Mazatenango – a three-hour drive from Guatemala City with one road in and no hotels - and the intimidating atmosphere of Estadio Saprissa in July 2000, the MNT was mere minutes of escaping from their first two group matches with four points.
In Guatemala, Ante Razov’s 45th minute strike sent the U.S. into the locker room with a 1-0 lead. The U.S. held on in the second half, but just as Carlos Ruiz avoided a sending off for a dangerous aerial challenge on U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller, moments later he would find the 88th minute equalizer, forcing the MNT settle for a 1-1 draw in Mazatenango.
A week later in San Jose, Costa Rica, a controversial hand ball called against defender Gregg Berhalter doomed the MNT to a 2-1 loss to the Ticos, putting them bottom of the group with one point after two matches.
Returning home for two straight matches, the U.S. thrashed Barbados 7-0 in August before a 10-man MNT used Brian McBride’s heroic goal to dispatch Guatemala 1-0 in early September.
Sitting second in the group on seven points after four matches, the MNT played their third straight home game against group leaders Costa Rica that October, but could only muster a 0-0 draw.
With three of four teams in the group still able to advance, the final group matches kicked off at the same time on Nov. 15. While a visit to lowly Barbados on the final day seemed to make for easy passage, the U.S. instead got a healthy scare as they were held scoreless in the first half. Early in the second half, Barbados forward Llewellyn Riley saw his shot deflect off the cross bar and moments later in Guatemala City, Ruiz had put Guatemala up 1-0 over Costa Rica in the 53rd minute. Had those results held, Guatemala and Costa Rica would have advanced and the U.S. would have been eliminated.
Perhaps the news lit more of a fire under the U.S. team as 10 minutes later in Waterford, Barbados, Clint Mathis finally found the back of the net. With the wall breached, the floodgates opened for the MNT as Earnie Stewart, Cobi Jones and Ante Razov all added goals to give the U.S. a 4-0 win.
In the span of 30 minutes, the U.S. went from being out of World Cup qualifying to advancing, and because of Guatemala’s 2-1 win against Costa Rica, won the group.
2014 Semifinal Round
Island nations have proved to be a nemesis for the U.S. in this phase of qualifying, and this last cycle proved no different.
The Seminal qualifying round in 2012 began easily enough for the MNT, as they glided to a 3-1 win against Antigua & Barbuda in Tampa. Four days later, they nearly stole three points away to Guatemala, but saw Marco Pappa play the villain with an 81st minute free kick as the team settled for a 1-1 draw in Guatemala City.
Taking four points from their first two matches, the U.S. and Jamaica each earned three points in their home matches against each other that September – a 2-1 win for Jamaica in Kingston and 1-0 victory for the U.S. in Columbus -- putting the two sides in a three-way tie with Guatemala atop the group standings with seven points.
A U.S. visit to Antigua & Barbuda that October seemed liked an easy three points, but proved to be the opposite as the MNT had trouble playing on the uneven surface at Sir Vivian Richards Stadium in North South as Eddie Johnson’s 20th minute header was cancelled out five minutes later by Dexter Blackstock.
More accustomed to the home field, Antigua had a number of chances that could have put them ahead, while goalkeeper Molvin James came up with several spectacular saves to keep his side level.
With the game locked 1-1 in the 90th minute, MNT debutant Alan Gordon served up a beautiful cross from the right that Johnson headed home at the back post, giving the U.S. a 2-1, face-saving victory and keeping the team atop the group.
While it came in the fifth game of the round, the result proved crucial for the U.S. as Guatemala defeated Jamaica 2-1 the same night in Guatemala City, meaning the U.S. would need just a draw in their final game four days later to advance.
While Carlos Ruiz put Guatemala ahead 1-0 in the fifth minute, the U.S. responded through Carlos Bocanegra five minutes later and a Landon Donovan first half brace to defeat the Chapines 3-1. The result, combined with Jamaica’s 4-1 thrashing of Antigua & Barbuda, saw Jamaica edge Guatemala out of qualifying on goal difference as the U.S. finished atop the group.