After the USMNT’s first Gold Cup title since 2013, players went back to their clubs, some continued the MLS and Liga MX midseason and some prepared to kick off their 2017 campaigns with their respective European clubs. Now, though, it’s time for these players to reconvene as they get ready for the final stretch of CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying.
CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying
Qualifiers began back in 2015, and we are now in the fifth round of the North American confederation’s qualifying system. AKA, “The Hexagonal” or “Hex.” Six teams advance to this round, with the top three going to the World Cup Finals in Russia next summer, and the fourth-place team going into a playoff against a country from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) for a spot in Russia.
Six games have been played, and the table currently look as follows:
|Trinidad & Tobago||3||1||5||0||3||10|
The U.S is currently safe in that third spot, but there are still four games to be played, and the CONCACAF is as competitive as ever. There is no guaranteed spot for Bruce Arena and his team, and they will go into these games at near full strength.
The USMNT kicks off this final stretch on September 1 against Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey. Costa Rica is no pushover, and the U.S. will have a chance to tie them for second in points. After that game, USA plays in Honduras on September 5, hosts Panama on October 6, and closes out in Trinidad & Tobago on October 10.
Finishing in the top 4 gives you a chance to compete for a World Cup spot, but USA is going to want to finish strong to have a guaranteed spot in Russia.
Players to Watch
Tim Howard and Brad Guzan have a spot locked down, and there’s no question about it. Arena has yet to release his roster, so it remains to be seen who that third goalkeeper is. It will be one of Sean Johnson, Bill Hamid or Evan Horvath. Hamid and Johnson both were on the Gold Cup squad, and neither did anything noteworthy, so I expect to see Horvath at some point in these qualifiers. He has put in good performances from Club Brugge, an elite club in Belgium, and Bruce Arena is still trying to find out who the goalkeeper of the future is for the USMNT.
I know this is the obvious pick, but I just can’t stop watchingChristian Pulisic. Pulisic scored in Borussia Dortmund’s opener in the Bundesliga, and now that his French teammate Ousmane Dembele is headed to Barcelona for a hefty transfer fee, the attention will turn to him as the most exciting winger on that team. Pulisic did not participate in the Gold Cup, but with the stakes much higher now, expect Arena to play him plenty going forward. We should see Pulisic put in some more impressive performances for the USMNT this fall, raising his stock and adding to his budding reputation as USA’s next big star.
Bobby Wood hasn’t scored a goal for the USMNT since November of 2016 and has been out of the national squad picture for months due to injuries. Wood will likely never be a prolific goal scorer for the US, but he is a versatile player that plays harder than anyone on the field, causing lots of problems in the final third. I am expecting to see him on the squad against Costa Rica and in Russia next summer, as well.
The USMNT has qualified for every World Cup since the 1986 edition in Mexico, but getting through the CONCACAF gauntlet is never an easy task. The United States fully expect to be playing in Russia next summer, but nothing is given, and Bruce Arena will try to continue his unbeaten run in his second stint as America’s head coach.