U.S. soccer fans have to be concerned about whether the Americans will miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986. (Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
When we both wrote about the beautiful game for the New York Daily News, columnist Filip Bondy and myself talked about soccer and the World Cup, among other subjects.
Filip once brought up a scary thought: someday the United States will not qualify for the World Cup.
I agreed with him because no matter what type of history a national team has, it does go through lean years or a lean cycle.
Heck, it has happened to just about to every great soccer nation in the world, except for perhaps Brazil, which has participated in every World Cup.
England missed out on USA 94, Italy did not qualify for the 1958 competition and Argentina did not make it to the 1970 tournament.
True, it’s once in a blue moon for these squads, but it happens.
Which got me thinking: Is this the competition that the USA fails to qualify?
After all, this is the first time since the 1958 qualifying competition that the Americans suffered two home loses in the same cycle. And that was in the days when the U.S. was a pushover internationally.
It is easy for younger generations to forget that the U.S. had endured 40 years in the World Cup desert from 1950 through Italia 90. Since then the Americans have qualified seven consecutive times and many of us — the American soccer community and even the media — have been spoiled to an extent, taking the team for granted, expecting it to reach Russia 2018 because it has in prior years.
The U.S. has made great strides and improvement since qualifying in 1990, but that doesn’t mean the national team will continue to rise in every competition. Good players come and go.
With three matches remaining in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, the United States sits in third place, the final automatic berth (the fourth-place side plays a runner-up team from Asia). The Americans (2-3-2, 8 points) enjoy a superior goal differential (plus one to minus one) over Honduras (2-3-2, 8) as the teams have the same amount of points.
Tuesday’s confrontation is vital for both teams. A win would give the Americans some distance from Honduras, but fifth-place Panama (1-2-4, 7) is hosting last-place Trinidad & Tobago the same day and is expected to secure three points against the Caribbean side.
So, a U.S. draw and a Panama win would leap frog Los Canaleros over the Americans into third place with two games remaining.
And guess who is the USA’s next foe after Honduras?
Maybe we have overrated this U.S. national team.
While there are talented players on the squad, consistency has been lacking, especially when push has come to shove in key matches.
Striker Jozy Altidore, while being in fine form for Toronto FC, hasn’t scored in the CONCACAF Hexagonal. And oh yes, he is suspended from Tuesday’s game after accruing two yellow cards in the hex.
When you’re playing a short season in the 10-game hex, every game matters, every play and goal is put under the microscope.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard could have played Costa Rica’s first goal better in the Ticos’ 2-0 win at Red Bull Arena Friday night.
It is unfair to expect miracles from 18-year-old phenom Christian Pulisic because he is only at the cusp of his career. He could be dominating one game, ordinary the next.
Even head coach Bruce Arena, a veteran of two World Cup qualifying campaigns, hasn’t been infallible as he has been under scrutiny for pairing Geoff Cameron and Tim Ream at center back against the Ticos.
So, will this will be the time the USA fails to book a spot in a World Cup?
Only time will tell.
But it is one scary thought, isn’t it?