U.S. World Cup qualifying outlook still murky but favorable after draw in Honduras

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It was not pretty. Anything but, in fact. And it was not impressive or inspiring. At least the performance wasn’t.

But Bobby Wood popped up on the six-yard box in the 85th minute of the U.S. men’s national team’s World Cup qualifier against Honduras on Tuesday and salvaged a vital draw for the Americans. Never mind the performance. Never mind the aesthetics. “We’re going to get out of here and not look back,” manager Bruce Arena said afterward.

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Arena clearly understood the significance of of the result. “Getting a point was huge for us,” he said. And he was right. Per FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, Wood’s goal was the difference between a 58 percent chance to qualify and a 74 percent shot.

Because not only did the U.S. get that point, it took two from Honduras – one of two nations with which the Yanks are competing for one-and-a-half World Cup spots.

The other, Panama, took care of business late Tuesday night with a 3-0 home victory over Trinidad and Tobago. The Panamanian win, and a Costa Rica-Mexico 1-1 draw, left the Hex table looking like this with two matches to play:

Mexico — 18 | +8
Costa Rica — 15 | +7
Panama — 10 | +2
United States — 9 | +1
Honduras — 9 | -7
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 | -11

And here are those two matches for the three nations squeezed up against the World Cup cut-lines:

Oct. 6

USA vs. Panama
Costa Rica vs. Honduras

Oct. 10

Honduras vs. Mexico
Trinidad and Tobago vs. USA
vs. Costa Rica

Those fixtures are significant. The Americans have two of the three most winnable matches in CONCACAF left on their plate. Honduras, meanwhile, goes to San Jose with the Costa Ricans needing a result to book their trip to Russia. And the U.S. gets an opportunity on home soil to help itself while hurting a direct competitor.

The stakes on Matchday 9 will be ever so high. Wins for the hosts would put the U.S. in fantastic shape – two points ahead of Panama, and three ahead of Honduras, with a goal differential advantage of at least 10 over the Hondurans. That margin would virtually guarantee the U.S. fourth place – and a two-leg playoff against either Australia or Syria – at the very least.

But a point for either of the road teams would make things complicated.

Christian Pulisic (10) and the USMNT still have some moves to make in World Cup qualifying. (AP)
Christian Pulisic (10) and the USMNT still have some moves to make in World Cup qualifying. (AP)

The scenarios

Regardless of the Honduras-Costa Rica outcome, a win over Panama would put the U.S. in a very favorable position. If Honduras gets a point in Costa Rica and the U.S. gets three in Orlando, Arena’s side would essentially only need a draw to assure itself of fourth.

If the U.S. doesn’t beat Panama in the penultimate round, though, danger is still present. A loss would rule the Americans out of third place, and would leave it needing to equal Honduras’ point tally to finish fourth. And even if the U.S. and Panama share the spoils, the Yanks could end up needing some help. In that case, even a win over Trinidad and Tobago wouldn’t be enough if Honduras wins out and Panama beats Costa Rica.

But it’s likely the U.S. does get some help. Those three combined wins for Honduras and Panama are a long-shot. Honduras will be an underdog at Costa Rica, and probably close to an even-money bet at home against Mexico. Panama would probably be favored over an already-qualified Costa Rica, but the general takeaway is that four points should be sufficient. And if those four points arrive via a win over Panama and draw in Trinidad, rather than the reverse, even better.

The tiebreakers

Part of the reason they’d likely be sufficient would be goal differential. The biggest result of the round for the U.S. could end up being the 6-0 victory over Honduras in March, which all but gives the U.S. any tiebreaker over the Hondurans. That means all the U.S. has to do to finish fourth is equal Honduras’ final two results. If Honduras draws both Costa Rica and Mexico, all the U.S. would have to do is draw Panama and T&T.

But there are also scenarios where where goal differential would prevent the U.S. from qualifying directly. Panama’s two second-half goals against Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday night were massive.

The U.S. will have the second tiebreaker (goals for) over the Panamanians if it comes to that, but let’s say the U.S. beats Panama 1-0 or 2-1 on Oct. 6. That would put the U.S. two points ahead with a +2 differential and Panama at +1. A U.S. draw in Trinidad would open the door for Panama to then win by two goals at home against Costa Rica and finish third.

That’s why the margin of victory would matter for the U.S. in that Panama game. If the U.S. could win by two goals, Panama would need to make up four on the final matchday in the event of a USA-T&T draw. But a one-goal margin would keep a fourth-place finish in play even with a point in Trinidad.

The fourth-place playoff

Fourth place is not necessarily an automatic spot. Australia has been to the last three World Cups, and would present a legitimate challenge. Syria could present a logistical challenge, and would make for a remarkable story, but would be less of a formidable foe.

The U.S., though, would be favored against either, especially with the first leg at home. Getting that first leg at home – one of the many things decided at FIFA’s preliminary qualifying draw all the way back in 2015 – makes for a sizable difference in meaningful travel. The Australians, for example, would have a 20-hour flight ahead of the first leg. Both teams would then have equal travel in between the two playoff matches. That’s a significant advantage for CONCACAF.

Tuesday’s draw in Honduras made those 20 hour flights and the dream of a USA-Syria matchup all the more possible. A win would have made qualification a strong likelihood. A loss would have put it in doubt. The middle ground leaves the U.S. in a good position, but leaves the scenarios as complicated as ever.

As Arena said afterward: “With two games remaining we have everything to play for.”

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.

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