United States’ hopes of World Cup qualification rising

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With the United States national team hoping to secure their place in next year’s World Cup, Megan Cleary looks at their past record in the tournament and which players are in contention to help the side get past their last opponents to reach their 11th tournament.

The 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia is less than a year away, leaving only two months for nations to qualify to compete in one of the biggest international sporting events in the world. With only four games left to pick up points, the United States men’s national team now seem to be on the positive side of potentially making it to their 11th World Cup.

The US have only experienced limited success in the tournament, with their highest finish still being at the inaugural World Cup held in Uruguay in 1930, when the US were awarded third place after Yugoslavia refused to play in the consolation match due to their controversial loss to the home nation in a semi-final.

After not qualifying to play in any World Cup from 1954 to 1986, their second highest finish came in 2002 when the US made it to the quarter-finals, only to be eliminated by Germany. In both 2010 and 2014 the States weren’t able to make it out of the round of 16.

Just last November, after losing to both Mexico and Costa Rica, America’s hopes at even qualifying for the next World Cup under head coach Jürgen Klinsmann looked dim.

Ranked 35th in the world (according to the FIFA/Coca Cola World Rankings), they are fighting for one of three automatic qualifying spots with the fourth-place finisher in the region having to face a team from Asia in an intercontinental play-off.

Just qualifying can be tricky as the US face tough competition from teams across North America, Central America and the Caribbean with both Mexico (16th) and Costa Rica (26th) well ahead of them in the world rankings.

With six rounds of qualifications, which have been going on since October 2015, the US are currently holding third in the region with eight points. Mexico stand solidly in first with 14 points, followed by Costa Rica with 11 with the top four rounded out by Panama, who have earned seven points, just one behind the US.

As Panama breathe down America’s neck for the automatic qualifying spot, the States need to win at least two of their upcoming matches to feel confident about moving on.

In reality they may be able to squeak into the tournament with just one win and one draw, but squeaking by is not what current head coach, Bruce Arena, is looking to do.

Hired specifically to get the team into the tournament, Arena is not reveling in his recent successes. Since his hire the US have gone on a 14 game unbeaten streak, which led to them winning their sixth Gold Cup championship, taking the title back from Mexico.

When asked about how the USMNT looked, Arena was clear, “We’re getting better – we need to get much better than we are right now.”

One of the most successful coaches in North America, Arena has five MLS titles along with the distinction of being the coach that led the US men’s team to their quarter-final finish in 2002.

In fact, Arena first served as the head coach of the USMNT from 1998-2006, tallying 75 wins over that period, the most international wins of any US men’s soccer coach. Arena now has the hard task of getting the roster together for September and October in what will be the last chance for the US to gain points and guarantee themselves a spot in Russia.

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When looking at the potential roster, there is plenty of speculation on who will be included, however, there are some clear favourites.

One of these favourites would be 22-year-old Jordan Morris. A Washington state native, Morris unabashedly admits that he enjoys still living with his parents. After winning the NCAA championship during his junior year at Stanford University, Morris turned pro and signed with the Seattle Sounders, the same team his father works for as the chief medical officer and team orthopedic surgeon.

While he is still working on consistency, Morris remains one of the more threatening forwards on the field with impressive flexibility and speed. The clearest example of his ability to stay focused through adversity was during the recent Gold Cup championship.

After letting his mark slip away and score the goal that would draw Jamaica even with the US at one a piece, Morris remained calm and continued pushing, eventually scoring the winner that brought the title back to the States.

There are other obvious favourites, Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Tim Howard and Clint Dempsey. However there are quite a few in the hunt for positions who deservedly earn a look with their play in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) tournament. Among them, Dom Dwyer, Darlington Nagbe, Jorge Villafaña, Matt Miazga and Kellyn Acosta.

Whoever Arena chooses, the test will begin September 1 when the fifth round of qualifying begins for the USA, who will face Costa Rica at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey.

While the US tends to win at home, Costa Rica demolished them 4-0 in their November friendly, which was held in Columbus, Ohio. While during the Gold Cup run the US did beat Costa Rica 2-0 during the semi-finals, there is no safe bet that they can overtake them again.

However, the US had Costa Rica figured out in that semi-final with strong midfield control from Kellyn Acosta and Michael Bradley with support from Nagbe, who was able to dribble out of pressure on several occasions allowing the team to regroup. This was combined with bold runs by Morris and Jozy Altidore, who kept constant pressure on Costa Rica’s back line resulting in a goals for Altidore. If the US can recreate the cohesion and controlled possession of that game, they have the advantage.

Whatever the result of their Costa Rica match, the pressure will remain high to gather more points and stay in the top three countries for their region. Following Costa Rica, the US will face Honduras September 5 in Estadio Olimpico in San Pedro Sula. Then go on to play Panama on October 6 and finally Trinidad and Tobago on October 10. As the USA moves onto the final push of qualifying, it is clear that right now the momentum is in their favour.

Follow Megan on Twitter at @mcmbegs

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