Tonight the USMNT take on Costa Rica in Denver in their second game of the Hexagonal. Next week they taken on Mexico in Mexico City. Two very important games, especially considering they lost their first game against Honduras a few short weeks ago. Since then there's been a lot of back and forth between fans about just how dire the situation really is for team USA. The answer? Not very.
But first let's check the standings:
The standings paint a grim picture of the USA being on the bottom and everybody else being on the top, but it also paints another picture: we're a single game into this tournament.
It would be a lie to say that losing your first game in the tournament isn't a tough and bitter pill to swallow, no doubt about it. And the USMNT didn't play extremely well in Honduras, which I attribute to a number of issues beyond what the media has latched onto as locker room drama. But there's still many games to be played and nothing will be decided based on a single match.
How to Qualify for the World Cup
The primary prize at stake in this tournament is to see who gets to go on and represent their country at the World Cup in Brazil in 2014. It's a big prize and, should the USA not make, it would make the first time in over 20 years. But doing so would be a difficult process for the USA.
CONCACAF allows 3.5 teams to make it into the World Cup. What this means is that the top 3 teams in the Hex will automatically make it to next year's World Cup. That's not all, however, as there is a big opportunity for a fourth place team in CONCACAF to make it as well. That .5 spot lends that opportunity in a home and away series against the winner of the Oceania conference.
So, for example, should the USMNT really struggle this year and only make it to the fourth position in the Hex, they will then play what is likely to be New Zealand for that fourth and final position.
Really, getting into this this won't be that difficult, even if they have a rough year as many are predicting.
Examining Past World Cup Qualifiers
The USMNT has never been an overly strong road side in regional competitions. If we look back to the 2010 World Cup qualifiers we can see that, while the USA won all of their home games, they didn't fair nearly as well on the road. They lost 3-1 to Costa Rica in Costa Rica, managing to only get a goal in the 92nd minute. They drew El Salvador 2-2. They lost to Mexico 2-1.
While they did beat Honduras away from home in 2009, the circumstances of the match were radically different from this year. In that tournament the match came at the end rather than the very beginning. But also, Honduras has become a better team. Building on their success in getting into the 2010 World Cup, they simply continued as players such as Roger Espinoza became key players.
The 2002 World Cup shows a similar trend in USA road woes. Back then the team lost to Costa Rica 2-nil, lost to Mexico 1-nil, and drew both Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago to nil-nil matches.
The take away from all this? The USMNT has never been a rock solid road warrior team. They always come back with a few scrapes and bruises. They key to each, however, is a near perfect home record. In 2001, 2005 and 2009, the home record was either perfect or one game shy of perfect. Those games are key.
While many alarm bells were rung following the USMNT's loss to Honduras a few weeks ago, the reality is that it wasn't really as big a deal as some might think. Perhaps it's some combination of the fact that Jurgen Klinsmann is the head coach now, or simply high expectations brought on by new fans to the sport. I don't know, but the tournament is far from over.
Now, if the USA loses tonight's game, we can begin to worry.