I don't think the urgency of the current situation has dawned on USMNT fans. I don't think the vast majority of folks reading this article quite understand just how high the stakes for Tuesday night's World Cup qualifier against Guatemala (7 pm ET; ESPN 2) are.
It's because World Cup qualifying is a long, drawn-out process, of course. The day-to-day urgency isn't there as it is in, say, the group stage of the World Cup or Gold Cup, or the meat grinder of the MLS playoffs. It feels like there's always time to right the cart after a mistake or two.
Truth is, though, that a loss to Guatemala means it's the end of the line for this qualifying cycle. It means that there will be no trip to Russia 2018, no trip, even, to the Hexagonal. It means the US men's national team will have failed to make the World Cup for the first time in 30 years.
There is no "but" after that, no way to moderate that stance. A loss is utter and complete failure for this World Cup cycle.
Here are the numbers from Paul Carr at ESPN:
#USMNT's SPI projections to reach the Hex, based on Tuesday result, independent of TRI-VIN game:— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 26, 2016
And I swear to you that 10% is actually optimistic. First, look at the standings:
Second, understand that the below, nightmare scenario is entirely contingent upon the US losing to Guatemala. Just mentally tag the end of each paragraph with "...if the US lose to Guatemala."
So, if the US lose, Guatemala jump up to 9 points. Trinidad & Tobago, meanwhile, will absolutely defeat St. Vincent & the Grenadines (tomorrow night's other game) at Port-of-Spain, putting the Soca Warriors on 10 points,
"Ok," you're thinking. "The US have two super-winnable games for the last two qualifiers -- away to St. Vincent & the Grenadines, then home vs. T&T. We'll get to 10 points even if we lose tomorrow -- don't be so dramatic!"
Here's the problem: If Guatemala beat the US, both they and T&T are extremely likely (as in "bet your life's savings") to finish this round with more than 10 points. A look at the schedule clears it up.
Guatemala finish at T&T, then home vs. St. V&G. T&T host Guatemala, then play at the US on the final matchday.
If los Chapines hold serve at home against the group minnows on the last matchday – and they will, since they've already beaten St. V&G 4-0 on the road – then it doesn't matter what they do against T&T in the second-to-last matchday. They can lose by 40. It doesn't matter, since a home win vs. St. V&G would put Guatemala on 12 points, a number the US can't hit.
If T&T hold serve at home against Guatemala on the second-to-last matchday – and they probably will, since they've already beaten Guatemala in Guatemala City this round – they'll finish with, at worst, 13 points. It would make the result of the last matchday's game at the US in November absolutely moot.
And here's the other thing: T&T have a margin for error. Even if they draw at home against Guatemala on that second-to-last matchday, that will be enough to put them through to the Hexagonal (11 points; US max is 10). A draw would also put Guatemala on 10 points, meaning they'd only need a home draw vs. St. V&G to eliminate the US.
Go back and parse that, and you'll come to a stunning conclusion: If the US lose tomorrow, then neither T&T nor Guatemala have to win another game to eliminate the US. It literally does not matter what the US do in their final two qualifiers, because a pair of draws for los Chapines and a single point for T&T would drive the final nail into the red, white & blue coffin. World Cup qualifying for 2018 would be over before most casual fans even realized it had begun.
The only even slightly plausible scenarios for US advancement should they lose tomorrow? Guatemala get stuffed at T&T, then somehow fall on their faces and draw at home against St. V&G in the final qualifier, while the US roll in both of their games. That would allow the US to advance on goal differential... but how much are you willing to wager on St. V&G getting a point in Guatemala City? "Plausible scenario No. 1" relies upon the 141st-ranked team in the world getting a result at the same stadium where the US just took a 2-0 beatdown.
The other slightly plausible scenario is T&T gakking it up at home against Guatemala, then getting beat by the US on the final matchday. This is maybe slightly more realistic – T&T have a history of losing home games they shouldn't – but to me it's way, way way lower than 10%.
So go ahead and freak the hell out. Tuesday's game is as big as it gets – it's quite honestly the most obvious win-or-die World Cup qualifier the US have played in since Paul Caligiuri's shot heard 'round the world.
Hopefully you now understand that. Hopefully Jurgen Klinsmann & Co. do as well.