For the USMNT, Road to Russia is Closing

With the road to Russia winding down, the United States are still without a ticket to the big show. A disastrous start to the final round of World Cup Qualifying saw the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann as manager. Now, with two games to play, the Americans need big results to go directly to Russia.

Heading into the final matches, the U.S. sits in fourth with nine points, one behind Panama and tied with Honduras, but ahead of the latter on goal differential.

With Mexico already claiming one of CONCACAF’s (Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football) automatic qualifying spots, and Costa Rica in need of either just one point or Panama and the U.S. to drop points to get in, the other three nations are fighting for the final automatic spot. First runner-up in that race will have to face a third place team from the Asian region, either Australia or Syria.

This puts in impetuous on the Americans to take six points in the final two matches. The good news for the U.S. is that they have the easiest two games of the three in the fight for third. Friday’s match in Orlando against Panama has become a must win, with even a draw allowing the Panamanians to control their own destiny on the final match day.

Thankfully for the U.S., the last game is against Trinidad and Tobago. T&T are rooted firmly at the bottom of the table.

But if there is anything from this qualifying cycle’s Hexagonal round, it is that the gap within CONCACAF is shrinking.

The Americans were undefeated at home in the last three World Cup qualifying cycles in the Hex, but dropped two this time around. In fact, the U.S. have lost more matches at home during the Hex than away.

Away games in the Hex are always a grind, played in some rather trying climates in front of passionate fans. Escaping Mexico, Panama and Honduras with draws mean the U.S. still have a chance.

Defensive stability has been the main issue for the Americans so far. With Wolfsburg’s John Brooks sidelined with a thigh injury, the U.S. has struggled at center back.

Pick any combination of Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and Matt Besler to start in the middle of the line. While all have had their moments, all have had issues this cycle.

The ongoing search for a full time left back also hinders the Americans. Jorge Villafana held down the spot for the Costa Rica match last month. He was then replaced by the ever-ageless DaMarcus Beasley for the Honduras match. Both were called up for this month’s squad.

Moving up the field, there is a deep generation gap that is still transitioning. The U.S. may have one of the brightest young talents in the world in Christian Pulisic. One can’t doubt his abilities, as he has more goals for club and country than Lionel Messi and Crisitano Ronaldo had before turning 19.

The Borussia Dortmund man has had a hand in 75 percent of U.S. goals in the Hex. Because of that, teams are taking notice.

Pulisic took a beating against Costa Rica and Honduras, and that affected the rest of the U.S. attack.

That attack, despite having 12 goals in the Hex, is sputtering. Clint Dempsey has become more effective in his role off the bench. Putting him through 90 minutes of tough competition twice a week is taxing on the veteran.

Jozy Altidore continues to be a streaky player, while Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris still lack true big game experience. In fact, the latter was dropped for this week’s games, replaced by the goal-scoring enigma that is Chris Wondolowski.

As a whole, the team needs to be more forward thinking and not be content sitting back and waiting for opportunities. In a cycle where the results have often come from grinding, the next two games they will have to dominate. Otherwise, the road to Russia will be closed, and there may not even be an Asian detour.

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