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