The United States Men’s National Team still has a long haul before the 2014 World Cup in Brazil with two do-or-die qualifiers next month against Antigua and Barbuda and Guatemala.
If the U.S. passes those tests, they will move on to the CONCACAF hexagonal, with the top three teams from that round automatically advancing to the World Cup.
Here is a look at the toughest qualifiers the U.S. has in front of them.
This upcoming match, which will happen on October 12, is not so much difficult because of the opponent, but difficult because of the situation the U.S. has put itself in. With only two games left in CONCACAF group play, the U.S. really can’t afford anything less than three points from this match.
While the U.S. could technically still get through with a tie against Antigua and Barbuda and a win against Guatemala on the final day of group play on October 16, no one on the U.S. team, or in the USMNT fanbase, wants the team to put itself in that position.
Antigua and Barbuda, with a population of only 81,000 people, has put in a respectable effort in group play thus far. Despite being dead last in points in the group, they earned a point tying Jamaica, lost their second match to Guatemala only 1-0 and gave the U.S. a minor scare in the opening game of group play.
The game is also an away match, and while Antigua probably won’t present an intimidating environment to play in, field conditions could play a big factor as they did when the U.S. played in Jamaica last month. If Antigua really wanted to make life difficult for the U.S., it would run a herd of buffalo on the pitch a week before the game.
This upcoming match, a home game for the U.S. on October 16, will determine whether or not the U.S. advances to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying. While the U.S. is 5-0-3 against Guatemala over the last decade and 4-0-1 at home, this game should prove to be a solid test for the Americans.
While there are many different advancement scenarios, assuming the U.S. wins against Antigua and Barbuda on October 12, the U.S. will need a tie against Guatemala to guarantee advancement.
Against Guatemala, the U.S. will also have to deal with Carlos Ruiz, who many American fans know quite well.
Ruiz is the ninth all-time leading scorer in Major League Soccer with 88 goals. Ruiz also has a penchant for scoring in the biggest games. Over his MLS career, Ruiz scored 16 playoff goals in 17 games and already has four goals in five World Cup qualifiers for Guatemala this cycle alone.
The other big player on Guatemala the U.S. needs to worry about is Marco Pappa.
Another face familiar to U.S. fans due to his years with the Chicago Fire, Pappa contributes goals from the midfield as he did 26 times for the Fire in his three years there. Pappa is also dangerous on free kicks as the U.S. found out in its last visit to Guatemala when Pappa scored on this free kick to tie the game at one apiece.
Additionally, if Guatemala beats Jamaica on October 12, it is likely Guatemala will advance to the next round of qualifying, meaning that the U.S. will once again have to travel to Guatemala for another World Cup qualifier.
A laser light being shot into Tim Howard's eye during August's "friendly" at Estadio Azteca
Over the last decade the U.S. is 8-4-3 against Mexico. However, that number can be misleading. Since the 2009 Gold Cup final, in which the United States fielded what could only optimistically be called its “B” team, the U.S. is 1-2-1 against El Tri.
Mexico is also virtually unbeatable at home, compiling a career 23-1-1 record against the U.S. on Mexican soil. The one American win, from this August, came when both teams fielded under-strength rosters and came in a friendly in which the U.S. was able to use six substitutions.
In World Cup qualifying, the U.S. will be restricted to the normal three substitutes, making the normal altitude and pollution advantages the Mexicans usually enjoy even more substantial.
When Honduras is playing at Estadio Olimpico, it can be one of the most intimidating atmospheres on the planet when it comes to World Cup qualifying. The last time the U.S. ventured to Honduras back in 2009, the country was on the brink of revolution.
U.S.-backed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya had recently been ousted and the government had imposed a curfew to quell street demonstrations. The U.S. State Department had recently issued a travel warning to Americans, urging them not to travel to Honduras unless it was “of a life or death nature.”
In that contest, the U.S. was able escape with a 3-2 win courtesy of a brace from Conor Casey and a missed penalty by Honduras.
The Honduran national team also boasts a number of quality players such as EPL veteran Wilson Palacios and Sporting KC’s Roger Espinoza.
Currently, Panama leads Group C in CONCACAF qualifying, and recently has become more and more difficult for the U.S. to play against.
In the 2011 Gold Cup, the USMNT lost to Panama during group play 2-1 before the U.S. snuck by them 1-0 in the knockout round despite being outshot 8-5. That win required this great combination between Freddy Adu, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey to put the U.S. ahead with only a little over 10 minutes left in the match.
Panama also boasts two of the hottest strikers in CONCACAF qualifying. Blas Perez, who plays for FC Dallas, has eight goals in eight qualifying matches. Perez’s partner up top, Luis Tejada, has four goals in five qualifying matches.
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