US fans can exhale after dominant win

Start saving up for those flights to Russia, US national team fans, your country just booked a place at the 2018 World Cup.

They won’t be uncorking the champagne for another 18 months or so, but the USMNT got over the biggest potential pitfall on their road to Russia on Tuesday by beating Guatemala 4-0 at MAPFRE Stadium.

A loss in Columbus on Tuesday would’ve effectively eliminated the US from the World Cup. A draw would’ve been OK, but it wouldn’t have quite gotten the USMNT out of the woods in the semifinal round of CONCACAF qualifying.

But we don’t need to worry about those scenarios. Tuesday’s win essentially sewed up the US’s spot in the Hexagonal, and in Russia, too.  

The US only needs four points from their final two matches of the semifinal round to clinch a berth in Hex. I’m fairly confident they’ll pick up three on Sept. 2 at lowly St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Drawing Trinidad and Tobago in Jacksonville on Sept. 6 probably isn’t too much to ask, either. The Americans could also clinch on Sept. 2 with a victory at Vincy Heat coupled with a Guatemala loss at Trinidad and Tobago, who beat Los Chapines 2-1 in Guatemala City back in November.

There are other permutations I could go through, but – barring a shocking defeat at St. Vincent and a Guatemala win at T&T on Sept. 2 – the US shouldn’t have much to worry about entering the final match of the round.

Which brings us to the Hexagonal. Yes, the Hex is tricky. The opponents are better, the road atmospheres are more intimidating and the matches are, on the whole, much tougher.

But the Hex is so much more forgiving than the semifinal slate, where a pair of bad matches can end a country’s World Cup dreams two years before the real tournament even begins.

Just look at the USMNT’s semifinal path. No one would argue they were at their best in their opening qualifiers of the round, but they got the results they needed, beating St. Vincent at home and drawing T&T on the road in November. One match threw everything off kilter, however, with Friday’s loss at Guatemala raising the dark cloud of a potential elimination on Tuesday.

One very bad game on Friday, coupled with another rough outing on Tuesday and the US’s World Cup would’ve ended before it ever began. Two bad games in the space of four days, and the US would've have had a very, very difficult path to a top-two spot in Group B. It could’ve all been over.

There’s much more margin for error in the Hex, where six teams compete for three automatic bids to the World Cup, and the fourth-place finisher faces the fifth-place squad from Asian qualification (the United Arab Emirates are currently the fifth Asian country in the FIFA rankings) in a playoff for a berth at the tournament.

Almost anyone can play two stinkers in a week. In the semifinal round, that kills you. In the Hex, that might not even make a dent.

Just look at Mexico in the 2014 cycle. El Tri survived seven bad results (they were an astonishing 1-1-3 at home and 1-2-2 on the road), picked up only 11 points in 10 matches and still managed to finish fourth, eventually smashing Oceania champs New Zealand 9-3 on aggregate in the playoff. It was a rough year for Mexico, but it didn’t stop them from making a run to the Round of 16 at the World Cup, where they led eventual third-place finishers Netherlands until collapsing late in the match.

In fact, in the four World Cup qualifying cycles held this century, the fourth-place finisher in the Hex has averaged 13.5 points. That’s in 10 games! Only one of those four teams (Costa Rica in the 2010 cycle, who had the misfortune of facing Uruguay in the playoff) even had a winning record in the Hex. Win three of your home matches, pick up just one win on the road and a draw a couple matches somewhere along the line, and you’ll likely finish no worse than fourth. For a country like the US, that should be cake.

Don’t get me wrong, the USMNT’s problems are myriad, well-documented and concerning. But the hardest part is over. Now they can focus on getting things right in time for Russia.