When U.S. Soccer lured Bruce Arena away from the Galaxy to coach the national team last fall, it gave him just one objective.
“My goal is very clear,” Arena said at the time. “It’s to qualify our team for Russia 2018.”
Friday’s dismal 2-0 loss to Costa Rica has put that goal in peril. But if the road to Russia has suddenly become steeper, there is still a way through, beginning Tuesday in Honduras.
Unbeaten Mexico (5-0-2) has already punched its ticket to Russia and Costa Rica (4-1-2) is close enough to begin pricing airfares. At the other end of the six-team qualifying table Trinidad and Tobago (1-6-0) is only mathematically alive.
That leaves the U.S. (2-3-2), Honduras (2-3-2) and Panama (1-2-4) to fight for what’s left: CONCACAF’s third and final automatic World Cup berth, plus a spot in a two-leg playoff against the Asian confederation’s fifth-place team for the final spot in Russia.
“This is our reality at the moment,” captain Michael Bradley said. “The likelihood is that it’s going to go down to the wire. That can’t scare us.
“Costa Rica and Mexico are gone. Us and Panama and Honduras play a few games, and at the end, one will go to the World Cup, one will go to the playoff and one will be out.”
The schedule favors the U.S., which has road games left with Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago sandwiched around a home date with Panama next month. The Americans also hold a commanding lead over Honduras in goal differential, the first tiebreaker.
Honduras has the most difficult schedule, playing its final two matches against Costa Rica and Mexico, while Panama finishes the tournament against Trinidad, the U.S. and Costa Rica. That U.S. advantage could disappear quickly, however, if the team plays as poorly Tuesday in San Pedro Sula as it did Friday at Red Bull Arena here.
“We’ll respond in a big way, like we always try to do,” Bradley promised. “There’s three games to go. Nine points on the table. Everything still to play for.”
Friday’s loss was indicative of that slide. Defensive mistakes and poor goalkeeping from Tim Howard resulted in both scores by San Jose Earthquakes forward Marco Urena.
“We knew that his speed and his runs, especially into the channels, are very dangerous,” said U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski, a teammate of Urena’s at San Jose. “I’ve seen him do that so often. It’s hard to guard him. I’m sure we all wish we could have done better.
“He definitely has bragging rights right now. But it will be all swept down the road if we both get to qualify for Russia.”
On the offensive end, the U.S. was woefully out of sync. And on the rare occasions when the Americans did challenge, Costa Rican keeper Keylor Navas came up big, reaching up with his right hand to bat down a shot from Christian Pulisic in the 67th minute, then smothering a try from Jozy Altidore 14 minutes later.
“We obviously didn’t play well tonight,” said Arena, who lost for the first time in 15 games since taking over for Jurgen Klinsmann two losses into the qualifying tournament. “We didn’t make any plays that mattered. We were probably outplayed in most positions on the field. And [we] made some critical errors.
“Give Costa Rica credit. They outplayed us and outcoached us.”
It was a particularly difficult night for the 18-year-old Pulisic, who had a target on his back and was battered whenever he got close to the penalty area. That’s a strategy that has played out repeatedly in the qualifying tournament.
Altidore, who had a challenging night of his own, saw his frustration boil over in the 80th minute when he earned a yellow card that will sideline him for Tuesday’s match — one the U.S. can no longer afford to lose.
“We all understand that getting to a World Cup is pass or fail. And at the end, nothing else matters,” Bradley said. “It’s our responsibility as players to step on the field and make sure that we find the right ways to do whatever it takes to qualify.”