This is how the US men’s soccer renaissance began more than a quarter-century ago, needing to get a result at Trinidad on the final day of World Cup qualifying. The Americans’ 4-0 blitzing of Panama in Orlando on Friday kept them alive in the regional chase for the three automatic spots for next summer’s event in Russia, but that’s all it did.
“We needed a win, but the job’s not done,” said Christian Pulisic, the 19-year-old wonderchild who scored the first goal in the eighth minute, then set up Jozy Altidore for the killer in the 19th.
While the Panama triumph lifted the Yanks into third place behind Mexico and Costa Rica, who have already qualified, they’ll still need to take at least a point from the Soca Warriors in Couva on Tuesday to book their ticket to the Cup for the eighth straight time.
“They look like they are fully focused on playing,” US coach Bruce Arena observed after Trinidad and Tobago, already eliminated, led the Mexicans on the road until the 78th minute before falling, 3-1. “It’s not going to be easy.”
It wasn’t easy in 1989 when the US needed to win in Port-of-Spain to qualify for the first time in four decades and prevailed, 1-0. Unlike then, when the Americans were coming off two scoreless matches, they’re on the rise after a rousing victory.
“On a night when so much was on the line — maybe everything — we played in a way from the get-go that gave no doubt as to who was going to win the game,” said captain Michael Bradley.
The margin made for a massive goal-differential swing, which is now plus-7 for the US over Panama, and means that the Yanks now almost certainly get in with a draw. But if they lose and Los Canaleros beat Costa Rica at home, the US will have to fly halfway around the world for a playoff with Australia or Syria.
A look at the other five continental races:
SOUTH AMERICA (four berths; fifth-place plays New Zealand for another). Qualified: Brazil
After three scoreless draws on Thursday, six countries still are in the chase for the remaining three spots behind Brazil, which has 38 points after losing only once in 17 outings and is 10 clear of the pack. Uruguay, which customarily has to win an intercontinental playoff to qualify, is sitting second (28) and is all but in. Everybody else will go to the wire on Tuesday. Colombia (26), which gave up two goals in the final four minutes to Paraguay at home, will be at Peru (25), which hasn’t made it since 1982. Chile (26), which won the last two continental titles and was second in last year’s Confederations Cup, likely has to win at Brazil. Argentina (25), which couldn’t score at home against Peru, might miss the Mundial for the first time since 1970 if it can’t prevail in Ecuador’s thin air. Paraguay (24), at home against bottom-feeder Venezuela, could sneak in.
EUROPE (13 berths plus host. Nine group winners automatic; eight best runners-up play for remaining four places). Qualified: host Russia, Belgium, Germany, Spain, England
The Germans, who claimed their fourth title in Rio last time, have won all of their outings by a 35-goal aggregate. The Spaniards, Belgians, and English went through unbeaten, too. But the rest of the Cup regulars are going to have to go to Tuesday and beyond to earn their way. The Portuguese will have to beat the Swiss in Lisbon after being blanked in Basel. The Italians, who haven’t missed out since 1958, will have to win a November playoff. The Dutch, who were third and second in the last two tournaments, are all but mathematically extinct. The French, held to a home draw by Luxembourg, could fall short as well. Meanwhile, a number of folks who haven’t been seen in a long while, or ever before, are in contention for berths. Iceland, which just flattened Turkey on the road, can make it for the first time by beating Kosovo at home. Montenegro, another potential newbie, has an outside chance at a playoff. Wales, which last qualified in 1958, can win its group by beating Ireland in Cardiff if the Serbs don’t beat Georgia at home. If Northern Ireland (not since 1986) and Scotland (1998) can make it out of playoffs the United Kingdom could have all four of its members qualify for the first time in six decades.
AFRICA (five berths). Qualified: Nigeria
Nigeria has qualified for the sixth time in seven quadrennia but there’s been plenty of upheaval already with more in the offing. Cameroon, a habitual participant that won the continental title last year, already is eliminated. Algeria, which made it to the second round last time, is out too. So will be Ghana, which made it to the last three Cups and twice eliminated the US, should Egypt beat Congo on Sunday. Ivory Coast, looking for its fourth straight bid, needs to beat Morocco at home. Senegal, which hasn’t made the Cup since 2002, just needs to win one of its two meetings with South Africa. Tunisia, which last qualified in 2006, can return by drawing with Libya at home.
ASIA (four berths; Australia-Syria winner plays CONCACAF fourth place for another). Qualified: Iran, South Korea, Japan, Saudi Arabia
Three of the four representatives from 2014 have made it back, with the Koreans qualifying for the ninth straight time and the Japanese the sixth. Iran breezed through its group unbeaten without allowing a goal until its meaningless finale with Syria. The Saudis, last seen in 2006, shut out Japan to edge Australia on goal differential. The Syrians, a feel-good story who’ve never been to the Cup, drew with the Aussies in their playoff opener on neutral ground last week but face a decidedly tougher task in Sydney on Tuesday.
OCEANIA: New Zealand plays South America fifth place for berth.
The Kiwis won this watery expanse by submerging much of Melanesia, dunking the Solomon Islands by an 8-3 aggregate. They get the first playoff leg in Wellington next month, then may have to go to Buenos Aires to punch their ticket after missing out last time.John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.