U.S. game vs. Costa Rica was always most important in Hexagonal
NEW YORK CITY -- When the United States men's national team takes on Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena on Friday night, the squad needs the three points that come with a victory. Earning them would give the Americans a 96 percent chance to reach the World Cup next summer, according to ESPN's Soccer Power Index (SPI). In other words, coach Bruce Arena and his men could start brushing up on their Russian phraseology with a win.
If the U.S. loses, however, their chances drop to just 80 percent with three matches to go. While the red, white and blue would still be favored to reach the quadrennial tournament, they would have little, if any, room for error. A loss would represent a significant step back for a program that's been trending positively since Arena took over as head coach at the end of 2016.
"We've worked real hard to position ourselves to be in a position to qualify for the 2018 World Cup," he said during a news conference on Tuesday afternoon.
They have worked hard and smart, and now sit on the verge of qualification. But the truth is that this match against Costa Rica was always going to be the most important game of the Hexagonal round. When the Americans looked at their fixtures against its five CONCACAF foes vying for one of the region's three places -- with the fourth-place team earning a playoff with a team from the Asian confederation -- they had to know they'd need these three points to reach Russia. Almost 10 months after the first game of the final round of World Cup qualifying, much has changed, but that fact remains the same.
Here's the conventional wisdom about qualifying in CONCACAF, courtesy of U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard: "World Cup qualifying means winning your home games and then getting a point on the road."
That's a nice and clean narrative, but it's not exactly true. Finishing in the top three requires somewhere in the neighborhood of 16 points, which is five wins and a draw. In each of the last three Hex rounds, the U.S. has earned at least six points on the road. This means there's room to slip up -- for example, if the team loses its first two games at home to Mexico and away at Costa Rica.
While those were tough defeats, with the first two ultimately costing Jurgen Klinsmann his job, they weren't as detrimental to the American's chances as they seemed. The two fixtures were the most difficult home matches the U.S. would play and the second-most difficult road match (and there's a case to be made that the Americans have had less success in Costa Rica than they have had in Mexico over the last decade). Zero points from two games looked bad -- and the capitulation at the end of the match in San Jose was one of the more depressing 30-minute stretches in U.S. soccer history -- but the return leg against Costa Rica is the real must-win.
Despite recent history, getting a positive result against Mexico in Columbus was a 50-50 proposition at best, perhaps less given both team's form at the time. After that loss, the simplest way to the World Cup was to take 12 points from the four remaining U.S. home games, and then earn a couple strong road results. Arena's squad had the firepower, the discipline and the understanding to do so, and they are already halfway there. The road would get a lot clearer with three points on Friday night.
It won't be an easy game. Real Madrid star Keylor Navas returns to goal for Costa Rica. He missed the United States' 4-0 win over the Ticos at the Copa America Centenario and the 2-0 American victory during the Gold Cup semifinal. The visitors had excellent support during a 1-0 win against Honduras during the group stage of the Gold Cup at Red Bull Arena. They'll have at least some of the crowd behind them again when they take the field in three days.
The U.S. team understands how important the match is, too. They've known they needed a win here since the first time they saw the draw. They stumbled along the way, and then picked themselves up, and haven't lost this calendar year. There's only a little further to go.
"We've gotten this far," captain Michael Bradley said. "We've turned it around in the right way. We've got to make sure that we finish the job."
The U.S. can't finish the job officially in New Jersey, but they can get very, very close. The path they took to this spot wasn't expected. The place they are now, however, is exactly where they always knew they'd be.
Noah Davis is a Brooklyn-based correspondent for ESPN FC and deputy editor at American Soccer Now. Twitter: @Noahedavis.