In its own way, qualifying for the World Cup from the CONCACAF region is hard.
Away games in Central America and Mexico are never anything but daunting, between the heat, the humidity, the pressure cooker stadiums, bad refereeing, scrappy or technically superior opponents and the assorted shenanigans and gamesmanship.
In another way, qualifying for the World Cup from the CONCACAF region is easy.
Half of teams progress from the semifinal round, and two-thirds make it out of the final round – three of six through a direct berth and the fourth goes into a playoff. And among the USA’s competition, only Mexico and Costa Rica are reliably strong. Honduras and Jamaica sometimes give the Americans trouble, and all the rest of the teams tend to cough up all the points more often than not.
Still, the U.S. dodged a bullet Tuesday. In its campaign to reach an eighth straight World Cup, only a scrappy late goal from Bobby Wood managed to stave off a fourth loss in the final, hexagonal round of qualifying. The 1-1 result saved the Americans’ blushes, and possibly their chances of reaching Russia. Certainly, two games remain in October. But the Americans could have slipped from third to fifth place and out of the qualifying spots for next year’s tournament in Russia.
At best, an ominous intercontinental playoff with Asia’s fifth-placed team might have awaited.
That might still happen. If Panama beats Trinidad and Tobago at home later on Tuesday, as it’s expected to, the Americans still slump to fourth place. Luckily, a head-to-head match-up with Panama remains in Orlando in October.
And, certainly, even a loss to Honduras may not have been terminal, since the Catrachos play mighty Costa Rica and Mexico in their final bouts – whereas the U.S. faces the aforementioned Panamanians and T&T, a far more forgiving slate.
But if an outright qualifying crisis was averted – which would have been the second one, after an 0-2 start saw Jurgen Klinsmann fired for the benefit of bringing back Bruce Arena in November – focusing only on the qualifying scenario, which remains robust for the U.S., misses some important points.
Namely, the Americans had never lost four games in the hexagonal before. They nearly got there in Honduras – with two games to spare, no less. After decades of traveling down to Central America for qualifiers and the occasional friendly, the conditions really can’t be surprising any longer. Yes, the heat index was reportedly 109 at kickoff and the field intentionally verged on unplayable, but Honduras isn’t a very good national team.
You’ll recall that in March, in Arena’s first competitive game back, the Yanks smashed Honduras 6-0 in San Jose, California.
The thing is, we’ve learned in this qualifying cycle that the United States just isn’t a very good national team either. The ledger of matches makes for grim reading. The late opening loss to Mexico was a tad unfortunate, in spite of a woeful start. The 4-0 hammering at the hands of Costa Rica in the other San Jose was not. Then followed the beatdown of Honduras, a tepid point in Panama, a ho-hum home win over T&T and a credible point in Mexico City. On Friday, the U.S. was outsmarted, by its own admission, by the Costa Rica at home for a second loss to that team. And then followed a fetid performance in San Pedro Sula on Tuesday.
Keeping score? That’s one good performance, four solid ones and three bad-to-terrible ones.
You may recall that the Americans began the semifinal round with a sputtering win over Saint Vincent and the Grenadines – going behind before running up a 6-1 score – followed by a scoreless and listless tie in Trinidad and a loss in Guatemala.
This qualifying campaign has been humbling for the United States. We assume progress on account of the increased interest and resources in our American game. Yet this has been the most fraught qualifying series since the 2002 World Cup cycle – when, incidentally, Arena led the U.S. to the brink of the semifinals in Japan and South Korea.
In 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic the U.S. has a player with the potential to be far and away the best this nation has ever produced. Several veterans like Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Geoff Cameron and Michael Bradley are still reliable pillars to the national team. And the player pool is supposed to be deeper than ever.
Yet these games have also exposed real structural issues. There are deep cracks in the foundation that should have been patched by now, after almost three decades spent routinely playing against the world’s best teams.
There still aren’t enough Americans who can competently and comfortably handle the ball. The striker corps is maddeningly mercurial. The U.S. currently has no international-level wingers to speak of, unless you push Pulisic out wide from his preferred and superior central role – although he plays on the flank with his club team, Borussia Dortmund, as well. Balance in central midfield is elusive. The back positions are problematic and thin. The central defense is an adventure on every play when the pairing isn’t Cameron with John Brooks – which it often hasn’t been, because of myriad injuries. And in goal, neither Tim Howard nor Brad Guzan look even close to their primes anymore, and no successor has been readied.
And because of a perpetual confusion about what this team’s default playing style actually is, it isn’t particularly convincing playing direct, countering or possession soccer.
These headaches were painfully apparent under Klinsmann, who only seemed to make them worse by playing half his team out of position in ever-changing formations. For a time, Arena seemed to have them smoothed over with simplified tactics and a more pragmatic mindset. But the past week’s putrid performances once again lay bare the many issues, even if the point will be celebrated as a win.
The USA will probably still qualify – because CONCACAF – and it may even look competent in Russia. But that doesn’t obscure the fact that after all those years of venturing south of the border, the U.S. still isn’t any better at it.
And that on the eve of another World Cup year, it’s hard to see where else any tangible progress might have been made.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.