Bruce Arena, Team USA face do-or-die implications as World Cup qualifying comes to a close

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Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. Men’s National Team has two vital games in the coming days, home against Panama and away to Trinidad and Tobago. The match against Panama will be Oct. 6 at 7:35 p.m., then the United States travels to play Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10 at 8 p.m. for the final game in qualifying.

Each team in “The Hex” has two games left to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This is how the table stands before the last two matches for the United States:

 

Wins Draws Losses Goal Difference Points
Mexico 5 3 0 8 18
Costa Rica 4 3 1 7 15
Panama 2 4 2 2 10
United States 2 3 3 1 9
Honduras 2 3 3 -7 9
Trinidad & Tobago 1 0 7 -11 3

 

The United States is currently fourth in the group, which is good enough for playoff spot.  So if qualifiers were to end today, the United States would have to play a two-legged match against a team from Asia to advance to the 2018 World Cup. That is a chance that the United States does not want to take.

The top three teams in the group automatically qualify for the World Cup. Finishing in the top three would allow the United States peace of mind before next year.  Manager Bruce Arena could tinker with the squad and try new combinations of players before picking his final squad to take to Russia. Having a playoff would add unnecessary pressure.

It is not terrible that the US is in the playoff spot, but the team has greatly underperformed, with the last two matches being a prime example. The U.S. lost 2-0 to Costa Rica and then followed that up with a 1-1 draw against Honduras. The United States are expected to be fighting for first-place in the group, not hanging on to the playoff spot for qualification.

The U.S. should go into these last two games to win. They can’t take chances and draw. Star players Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic are going to have to lead the United States.  

The biggest concern is the defense. There has been a lack of consistency in the back-line because there has been a lot of rearranging of defenders. Midfielder Graham Zusi has been played out of position at right-back during qualifiers, and the U.S. has missed the presence of center-back John Brooks. That has translated to the performance on the field with the U.S. conceding 11 goals during qualification. However, right-back DeAndre Yedlin will be healthy for these upcoming matches, which should add some stability in the defense.  

The United States should be optimistic going into the last two games. The last time the U.S. played Panama, they drew 1-1. The last time they faced Trinidad and Tobago, it was a 2-0 victory for the U.S. This upcoming match against Panama will be in Orlando, so the U.S. will have home field advantage. Also if the U.S. beats Panama, then they will leapfrog them for third place in the group and the last automatic qualifying spot for the World Cup.

Arena has picked a strong squad for these last two games, with a heavy focus on attack. The last time the United States did not qualify for the World Cup was in 1986. Since then the U.S. has established itself as a powerhouse in CONCACAF and a mainstay in the tournament. Being in the World Cup every four years is great for the development of soccer in America, as they continue to take the next step towards a world soccer powerhouse.