The U.S. Men’s National Team has played in the last seven World Cups – one of only six nations in the world to accomplish that feat – and some people naturally assume that every four years the U.S. is just penciled into the bracket. Not so!
In fact, qualifying for the FIFA World Cup out of CONCACAF is a marathon. Since the current qualifying format was adopted for the 1998 tournament, the U.S. has had to play 16-18 matches spanning two years in order to book its place in the FIFA World Cup.
In the case of the current cycle, the MNT began its quest to qualify for Russia 2018 when it started play in CONCACAF’s Semifinal Round in November 2015. Having finished on top of a group that also featured Trinidad & Tobago, Guatemala and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the U.S. now finds itself in the CONCACAF's Final Round of World Cup Qualifying.
The six-team group, nicknamed “The Hex” (short for Hexagonal), pits the top two teams from each of CONCACAF’s three semifinal groups – in this case, Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Trinidad & Tobago and USA -- in a home-and-away mini-league which began in November 2016 and concludes in October 2017. At the end of the 10-game schedule, the top three teams in The Hex automatically qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.
Meanwhile, the fourth-place team from CONCACAF will go into an intercontinental playoff with the fifth-place finisher from the Asian Football Confederation’s own qualifying tournament. The winner over two games will be 32nd and final entrant into the World Cup.
Got all that?
Here’s a breakdown of the 10-game schedule the MNT will have to navigate to qualify for its eighth consecutive FIFA World Cup, with a little history added in.
USA 1, Mexico 2 - Nov. 11, 2016 in Columbus, Ohio
Having defeated Mexico 2-0 in each of its previous four Final Round matches played in Columbus, Ohio, the MNT went back to MAPFRE Stadium in November, where they fell 2-1 to a talented Mexico side.
A deflected effort from Miguel Layun gave Mexico a 1-0 lead in the 20th minute, before the U.S. suffered another setback when goalkeeper Tim Howard suffered a fractured right adductor while taking a routine goal kick and had to leave the match in the 40th minute. After halftime, the U.S. bounced back through Bobby Wood's 49th minute strike and had chances to push ahead that came up empty. Just as it looked like both teams would settle for a 1-1 draw, Mexico captain Rafael Marquez headed home an 89th minute corner kick from Layun to give El Trí all three points.
WATCH: U.S. Falls 2-1 to Mexico in November
Costa Rica 4, USA 0 - Nov. 15, 2016 in San Jose, Costa Rica
Four days after falling to Mexico, the U.S. traveled to Estadio Nacional de Costa Rica for a match against Los Ticos. The MNT's success rate in Costa Rica had never been great and while the U.S. nearly went into halftime tied 0-0, but Johan Venegas pushed the home side ahead in the 44th minute. Costa Rica then added strikes from Cristian Bolańos and a brace from Joel Campbell to run out 4-0 winners.
In the days following the match, Jurgen Klinsmann was replaced by former MNT head coach Bruce Arena, who is charged with righting the ship for the U.S. to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
USA vs. Honduras - March 24, 2017
With just eight previous qualifying meetings, there’s much less history with Honduras than some of the MNT’s other Hex opponents. That said, Honduras does have its place in the USA’s World Cup Qualifying history thanks to its 3-2 victory in 2001 at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. That result ended the MNT’s then record 19-match home unbeaten streak in qualifying and also stands as the USA’s last home qualifying defeat. The team will enter Final Round qualifying riding a 30-match home unbeaten run dating back to that 2001 loss.
WATCH: Honduras hands the U.S. its first home World Cup Qualifying loss since 1985All-Time WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 5-2-1
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 2-1-0
Panama vs. USA - March 28, 2017
Having only first met Panama during qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, the U.S. has become better acquainted with Los Canaleros in recent years. While qualifying visits to Central America are far from easy, the MNT has fared reasonably well in Panama, going 2-0-1 in its three contests at Estadio Rommel Fernandez. The most recent meeting will be fresh on the minds of Panama after the U.S. eliminated them from contention for the 2014 FIFA World Cup in heart-breaking fashion. With only a few ticks remaining on the clock and Panama’s dream of reaching its first World Cup moments from being realized, goals by Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson elevated the MNT to a 3-2 win on Oct. 15, 2013. Adding a bit of irony, the USA’s comeback win handed its nemesis Mexico a lifeline in their bid to advance to Brazil.
WATCH: U.S. eliminates Panama from World Cup contention in 2013
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Panama: 5-0-1
All-Time Away WCQ Records at Panama: 2-0-1
USA vs. Trinidad & Tobago - June 7-8, 2017
The U.S. will be best acquainted with Trinidad & Tobago after facing the Soca Warriors twice in the semifinal round. While T&T has offered tough challenges over the years, the MNT has dominated the series overall. The 4-0 win in September in Jacksonville moved the USA’s all-time home World Cup Qualifying record to 8-0-1 against the Caribbean nation. The matchup will bring back fond memories for Jozy Altidore, who in the 2008 edition of the series became the youngest player in history to score a hat trick for the U.S. Men’s National Team, tallying all three goals in the dominating 3-0 victory on April 1, 2009, in Nashville, Tenn.
WATCH: Kljestan, Altidore, Arriola lead MNT past T&T in September
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 12-1-3
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 8-0-1
Mexico vs. USA - June 11-12, 2017
The second half of the cycle begins with the U.S. visiting Mexico and very likely the daunting Estadio Azteca. The heat and humidity of Mexico City in June combined with the 7,380 feet of altitude will certainly be payback for the potentially cold temperatures of Columbus in November. While the more than 100,000 fans packed into the arena create an even greater home-field advantage, the U.S. has put chinks in the armor in recent years. Having first earned a 0-0 World Cup Qualifying draw there in 1997, the MNT collected its first win against Mexico on their own soil in a 1-0 friendly win in 2012, and went on to secure a point from a 0-0 draw in 2013 during final round qualifying.
WATCH: U.S. earns crucial 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca in 2013
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Mexico: 6-16-6
All-Time Away WCQ Record at Mexico: 0-13-2
USA vs. Costa Rica - September 1, 2017
Just as the United States has found little qualifying success in Costa Rica, so the story goes for Los Ticos on U.S. soil, where the MNT holds a 6-1-2 all-time advantage. Costa Rica’s last two qualifying visits have provided memorable moments. In 2009, Jonathan Bornstein’s game-tying goal in the 95th minute not only ensured the U.S. remained unbeaten in home World Cup Qualifying, but also helped Honduras leapfrog Costa Rica for CONCACAF’s third World Cup Qualifying place for the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
In March 2013, the U.S. earned a 1-0 home win against Costa Rica in a match dubbed the “Snowclasico” for its blustery winter conditions at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo. As field conditions worsened during the match, referee Joel Aguilar halted the game in the 55th minute to allow the stadium grounds crew to clear the lines on the field of snow. A gutsy performance saw the U.S. win 1-0 behind a first-half goal from Clint Dempsey as Costa Rica departed Colorado with jittery teeth and a bitter taste in their mouth.
WATCH: MNT grinds it out in the snow vs. Costa Rica
U.S. All-Time WCQ Record vs. Costa Rica: 6-10-3
U.S. All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Costa Rica: 6-1-2
Honduras vs. USA - September 5, 2017
Interestingly, Honduras is the only Hex opponent that the U.S. has won against on the road more times than they have at home. The series dates back to a 1-0 victory in San Pedro Sula in 1965 and has seen the U.S. earn two more wins at Estadio Olimpico – 2-1 in 2001 and a 3-2 result in 2009 in a game that feature two goals from Conor Casey and a Landon Donovan free – as well as a late penalty miss by Honduran striker Carlos Pavon - which clinched a berth for the United States at the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Still, the U.S. will return looking to avenge its last meeting there. In the blistering heat of San Pedro Sula – matched only by the intensity of their fans both inside and outside the stadium – the United States suffered a 2-1 defeat to open the final round of qualifying in 2013.
WATCH: U.S. earns 2010 World Cup berth in San Pedro Sula
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Honduras: 5-2-1
U.S. All-Time Away WCQ Records at Honduras: 3-1-1
October 6, 2017 - USA vs. Panama
Historically speaking, the MNT will still be in need of points to qualify when they host Los Canaleros on Matchday 9. The U.S. has won all three of its previous home World Cup Qualifying matches against Panama, outscoring the Central American side 10-0 in process. Nonetheless, the USA must remain vigilant: Panama has earned two consecutive draws on U.S. soil and won the Third Place match of the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup in penalties. The 2004 meeting in qualifying added to the U.S. history books when after entering in the 65th minute, Eddie Johnson ripped off three straight goals to become the first player in MNT history to record a hat trick as a substitute. The U.S. ended with a 6-0 win.
WATCH: U.S. sees off Panama during 2013 Hex in Seattle
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Panama: 5-0-1
All-Time Home WCQ Record vs. Panama: 3-0-0
October 10, 2017 - Trinidad & Tobago vs. USA
In 1989, the MNT visited Trinidad & Tobago on the final day of World Cup Qualifying knowing that only a win would take the USA to its first World Cup since 1950. On that day, the task of winning away in Port of Spain was no foregone conclusion, and Paul Caligiuri’s “shot heard ‘around the world’ launched the modern era of U.S. Soccer. Flash forward almost 30 years, and anything less than three points there hasn’t met expectations. The MNT learned that lesson last November following a 0-0 draw in its semifinal round match at Hasely Crawford Stadium. With competition in CONCACAF at its fiercest, the U.S. could very well enter the final game of the Hex needing a result to book passage to Russia.
WATCH: Paul Caligiuri sends USA to first World Cup since 1950
All-Time WCQ Record vs. Trinidad & Tobago: 12-1-3
All-Time Away WCQ Record at Trinidad & Tobago: 4-1-2
Go on tour with the big-time bands and you’ll find a team of tireless experts that works behind the scenes to make sure that everything is perfect when the group steps on stage to perform for their legion of fans, from setting up the lighting and sound, to tuning instruments, to the organization of the food and travel. As the “team behind the team,” the members of that dedicated staff are the most important people you’ve never heard of.
- IN PHOTOS: Earnie Stewart Remembers 2001 WCQ Series vs. Honduras
- IN PHOTOS: A Tour of Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City
The U.S. Men’s National Team deploys a similar group, each having different responsibilities but working towards the same goal. To give you a glimpse, ussoccer.com went behind the scenes with MNT Equipment Manager Jesse Bignami (left above) and Team Administrator Jon Fleishman (right) to document three different phases of their work behind a successful 10-day gathering.
Photos: John Dorton and Mike Janosz / ISI Photos
On March 9, MNT Equipment Manager Jesse Bignami and Team Administrator Jon Fleishman are putting the finishing touches on a large shipment of gear that will go from its home at the National Training Center in Carson, Calif., to the MNT hotel in San Jose.
For Fleishman, it means packing up approximately nine cases that contain everything he needs to setup a mobile office at the team hotel, while Bignami works with the MNT medical staff to gather all of their equipment as well as the large amount of player gear needed to go on the road.
The MNT kit man packs up the usual items such as boots, balls, jerseys, goalkeeper gloves, casual wear, massage tables, and medical equipment. There’s also some more eccentric items, like a heat press, boot stretcher, power adapters for foreign countries, and even the game balls that will be used by our opponent on the road.
In total, he estimates they ship about 100 different trunks and cases to San Jose that add up to almost 10,000 pounds.
“We almost always are shipping prior to the roster being announced and we don’t have a home stadium, so we basically have to bring everything we need to be self-sufficient anywhere in the world,” Bignami told ussoccer.com “That’s different than any club team who travels 48 hours before a game. Jon has nine trunks that are basically his mobile office. All the medical stuff we travel with accounts for the fact that we obviously don’t have a fully equipped training room when we show up in a hotel. There’s a lot to consider.”
As he’s packing, Bignami keeps a meticulous list, tracking everything that goes onto the shipment truck.
After three long days of packing, the two see the shipment off to San Jose where they’ll collect it eight days later.
Flash forward to March 17 where Bignami and Fleishman are joined by MNT Assistant Equipment Manager Mike Zawlocki and other staff to begin setting things up at the team hotel before players and coaching staff arrive two days later.Read more
Sebastian Lletget had a dream start to Friday’s crucial World Cup Qualifying clash vs. Honduras, tapping home a rebound on Christian Pulisic’s shot to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead in the fifth minute.
Moments after the goal, the 24-year-old’s World Cup Qualifying debut went from joy to pain – quite literally – due to a late, hard tackle from Éver Alvarado in the 15th minute.
While the Honduras midfielder was shown a yellow card for the challenge, Lletget was forced out of the match minutes later and is now feeling the long-lasting effects after the LA Galaxy announced Tuesday that the midfielder sustained a Lisfranc injury.
The U.S. Soccer and LA Galaxy medical teams, headed by foot and ankle specialist Dr. Rachel Triche, determined that Lletget will require surgery next week when the swelling comes down.
Lletget will be sidelined for the next 4-6 months.
Get well soon, Sebastian. We’re behind you all the way.Read more
After two tough losses to begin the Final Round of 2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying back in November, the U.S. Men’s National Team came into Friday’s home match against Honduras with a simple message:
By the 54th minute, they had peppered six goals in the back of the net and rode that score line to the final whistle, setting a record for the largest margin of victory in the Final Round of World Cup Qualifying since CONCACAF adopted the current format in advance of the 1998 tournament.
The victory not only provided a boost of confidence, but coming after a bitter 4-0 defeat at Costa Rica in November, it also served as a reminder to the rest of the region what the U.S. was capable of all along.
- READ MORE: Clint Dempsey has storybook return to the MNT vs. Honduras
- WATCH: Full highlights from the MNT's 6-0 win vs. Honduras
“I think it’s a statement game for sure,” said veteran MNT defender Geoff Cameron. “I don’t think we expected to win 6-0, but I think we just overall finished amazing tonight. Every opportunity we had we finished, and that’s very clinical. I think overall we pressured the ball and made it difficult. It was a great all-around game for everybody. We knew it was a big game for us. It was a must win and we took advantage of that.”
As Cameron points out, the MNT was efficient going forward, converting six of their eight shots on goal. In defense, Tim Howard made four saves while the MNT midfield and back line often frustrated the Honduras attack. The U.S. has yet to surrender a goal during Arena’s current tenure, posting three straight shutouts.
“It’s three points,” said U.S. captain Michael Bradley. “It’s the first step in terms of getting ourselves back in a good position in the table. We’ve waited a long time for tonight, especially given the way the two games went in November. I thought across the board, every guy stepped on the field tonight with the right mentality, ready to give everything to make sure we walked off the field with three points.”
Having begun the day at the bottom of the six-team Hexagonal, the U.S. jumped up to fourth place by the end of the night thanks to the win and other results around the region. Now they head south to Panama in search of a result on the road that can push them even higher.
“We can build off tonight and we know it’s going to be a tough game down in Panama,” said Cameron. “We’re not expecting to win 6-0 like we did tonight, but we know it’s wide open now with the results that happened. We know if we take care of business in Panama, we can climb the table and get back to where we belong.”
Bradley added, “I think tonight’s a good first step in terms of re-establishing a lot of things for our group in terms of who we are and what we’re about. We move on and get ourselves ready for Panama where we want to get three more.”Read more