U.S. World Cup qualifying scenarios: What's at stake Friday vs. Panama

The United States men’s national team has an 83 percent chance to qualify for the 2018 World Cup.

That’s according to one of the better statistical models we have, courtesy of ESPN Stats and Information, via Paul Carr. And it’s reflective of the fact that, despite all the anxiety and unease ever since that 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in New Jersey, the U.S. is still in good position to qualify for the World Cup.

But – yep, of course there’s a “but” – there are three important notes. First, 83 percent is far from a guarantee. As Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl so mischievously pointed out, it’s around the same odds Hillary Clinton had of winning the U.S. presidency 11 months ago.

Second, because the U.S.’s opponent on Friday is one of its two direct competitors, those odds could be drastically different by Saturday morning. With a loss, the U.S. would be knocked out of contention for third place – the final direct qualification spot – and would likely have to win its final match to have a shot at qualifying through an intercontinental playoff.

And third, those odds aren’t entirely accurate, because they don’t take into account one slightly troubling aspect of the situation: Neither Mexico nor Costa Rica, the final-round opponents of Honduras and Panama, will have anything to play for on Tuesday, assuming Costa Rica gets at least a point against Honduras. (Trinidad and Tobago will also likely have nothing to play for against the U.S., but that benefit is less significant.)

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So let’s get to the specifics. The United States currently sits in fourth place, ahead of Honduras on goal differential, behind Panama by one point. The top three teams qualify. The fourth-place finisher advances to a winner-goes-to-Russia playoff against either Australia or Syria.

Here’s the current table:

Mexico — 18 | +8
Costa Rica — 15 | +7
Panama — 10 | +2
United States — 9 | +1
Honduras — 9 | -7
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 | -11

The U.S. plays Panama at home in Orlando on Friday (7:30 ET, ESPN), while Honduras plays at Costa Rica in a game that has been rescheduled for Saturday afternoon (6 p.m. ET) due to tropical storm Nate.


Those two matches will determine where things stand entering the final matchday, next Tuesday. In simultaneous games, the U.S. travels to Trinidad (8 ET, BeIN Sports, go90 app); Honduras hosts Mexico; Panama hosts Costa Rica.

Here’s a handy visual guide to the nine different combinations of Matchday 9 results and where they would leave the three teams:

(Henry Bushnell/Yahoo Sports)

The two most notable scenarios: If the U.S. wins, and Honduras loses in Costa Rica – the most likely results – the Yanks will be all but guaranteed at least fourth place. But if the U.S. loses to Panama, with Honduras also losing, Panama secures third place and its first-ever World Cup berth. The U.S. would need to equal or better Honduras’ result on the final matchday.

The important footnote is that Honduras’ goal differential is a ghastly -7, in large part due to its 6-0 loss to the U.S. in March. Both the U.S. (+1) and Panama (+2) would hold a tiebreaker advantage.

On a similar note, if the U.S. beats Panama, the margin of victory matters. If it can do so by two or three goals, it would likely only need a draw in Trinidad.

[More FC Yahoo: U.S.-Panama tactical preview, lineup questions]

It is of little use to go in depth into the final-matchday scenarios before Friday’s and Saturday’s games have played out, but the generalized version of them is this: If the U.S. wins both of its remaining games, it will go to the World Cup. If it wins one and draws one, it is in very good shape, but if the draw comes against Panama rather than against Trinidad and Tobago, the Americans might have to qualify through the playoff.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the U.S. loses both games, it would need Honduras to lose twice as well just to get to the playoff. In general, as long as the U.S. matches Honduras’ results, it will at least be playoff-bound. If it can’t, and if its results total two points or fewer, it will almost surely finish fifth and be eliminated.

[More FC Yahoo: What missing the World Cup would mean for American soccer]

So to say a lot is at stake on Friday is an understatement. The U.S. is the favorite to finish third based on remaining fixtures. But anything can happen. Prepare your emotions accordingly.

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Henry Bushnell covers soccer – the U.S. national teams, the Premier League, and much, much more – for FC Yahoo and Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell.