U.S. soccer fans breathed a sigh of relief after the men's national team drilled Guatemala 4-0 on Tuesday night in Columbus, Ohio. A 2-0 loss in Guatemala City on Friday had seemed to put the United States in peril of not qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.
There were calls for the dismissal of coach Jurgen Klinsmann, questions about selection policy and general trepidation.
Even after the big win, the United States stands in second place in its qualifying group, only 1 point ahead of Guatemala. With only two teams to advance, is there still a real danger of elimination?
Was there ever?
And could there be signs of trouble ahead for the final qualifying round?
In a word, no.
Both the United States and Guatemala have two games remaining, in September. Each should score easy wins over St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which is 0-4 with a minus-16 goal differential.
The other games are against the group leader, Trinidad and Tobago, but the U.S. game is at home, in Jacksonville, while Guatemala must travel to Port of Spain. The United States also has a huge 7-1 edge in goal differential, the first tiebreaker.
Once the U.S. team advances to the final round, known as the hexagonal, it should be favored again. Its world ranking is 30th. Only Mexico, at 22nd, is higher among the teams from the United States' region.
The other likely participants range from Costa Rica at 33, down to the 80s. And with three or four qualifying spots available, there is quite a margin for error. Mexico was 2-3-5 in the hexagonal and still qualified for the 2014 World Cup.
Every four years, it seems, there comes a time when the United States hits a bad patch in qualifying and panic ensues.
At the same stage in qualifying for 2014, the U.S. team started 1-1-1 with a draw in Guatemala and a loss in Jamaica and was tied for second in the group. The Americans went on to win it. Four years earlier, the United States lost a game in the final qualifying round at Costa Rica after drawing at El Salvador. The U.S. team won the group; Costa Rica and El Salvador did not make the World Cup.
Notice that all of the key U.S. setbacks came on the road. Winning international games in Central America and the Caribbean can be tough; conditions are difficult and refereeing can be iffy.
When the hexagonal begins, expect the United States to lose an away game and the hand-wringing to begin again. And expect the U.S. team to qualify for the World Cup.
The United States has qualified for every Cup since 1990, when it sneaked past Trinidad in the final qualifying game. The U.S. team qualified automatically in 1994 as the host and since then has made the Cup five straight times, usually with some ease.
But all the news is not good for U.S. soccer.
While the women's team breezed into the Olympic Games, the men's team will not be going after losing 2-1 to Colombia in Frisco, Texas, on Tuesday night. The team of under-23 players had lost an earlier chance to qualify in October, falling to Honduras. The team also failed to make the 2012 Games.
But it is hard to prepare a makeshift team of youngsters in a short time. And the Olympic field of 16 is only half the size of the World Cup's.
Although it too will have its stumbles, Klinsmann's World Cup team is not likely to face a similar fate.
— New York Times