Following their 6-0 hammering of Honduras, the U.S. men's national soccer team is back on track to qualify for Fifa World Cup 2018 in Russia. But one big win does not make a successful qualifying campaign and U.S.A. Soccer's Michael Bradley admits the team isn't "out of the woods yet"."
Join me in looking ahead at what Bruce Arena's team needs to do between now and October 2017 to qualify for the next Fifa World Cup.
First up will be another crucial tie against another Central American side. The match against Panama is due to take place tomorrow night (March 28) at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City. Unlike Honduras, Panama is likely to prove a real test for the red, white and blues.
Panama has already held the qualifying group leaders Mexico to a 0-0 draw at home, while playing out two other 1-0 results (one they won, the other they lost). Sitting in third place in the table, Panama is one point ahead of the U.S. men's national soccer team. A win tomorrow night (March 28) would see Arena's side leapfrog their opponents and put pressure on the top two teams.
Let's look at U.S.A Soccer's qualifying so far.
Friday's win over Honduras marked a turning point after two straight defeats in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers. It saw the U.S. men's national soccer team jump up to fourth in the qualification table and move their goal difference back into the positive.
Before this win, consecutive defeats to Mexico (1-2 at home, November 11, 2016) and Costa Rica (4-0 away, November 15, 2016) had seen the U.S. men's national soccer team languishing at the bottom of the qualifying table, with a five-goal negative goal difference.
This final round of qualifiers for next year's Fifa World Cup, Round 5, sees the top six teams in the region battle it out for three automatic places, plus one team who will face a play-off for one last place against an opponent from Asia.
Following tonight's game against Panama in fourth position, U.S.A. Soccer will face the following schedule of fixtures:
June 8 vs. Trinidad and Tobago (home)
June 11 vs. Mexico (away)
September 1 vs. Costa Rica (home)
September 5 vs. Honduras (away)
October 6 vs. Panama (home)
October 10 vs. Trinidad and Tobago (away)
Of these fixtures, the toughest tests are bound to come in the away game with Mexico, the home game against Costa Rica and tonight's match against third place Panama. Getting a result in at least one of these games will be crucial in keeping alive the hopes of an automatic qualifying berth.
The U.S. men's national team will feel confident in a number of the other fixtures, including the two ties against Trinidad and Tobago, who they beat 4-0 (home) and drew with 0-0 (away) during the previous round of qualifying and who have already lost to Honduras in this round of matches.
In truth, the U.S. men's national should qualify, but the games against Panama, in particular, will be pivotal in deciding whether the red, white and blues will be booking their tickets for Russia directly this October, or waiting to face a nerve-wracking play-off against Asian opponents.
Which players are going to matter most in the remaining games?
Arguably, there are three players whose continued good form will be crucial to the U.S. men's national soccer team's hopes of qualifying for next summer's Fifa World Cup. They represent both the rearguard and the team's offense and reflect the widest mixture of experience imaginable.
Let's start with the newest hope for the U.S.men's national soccer team: Christian Pulisic. Pulisic has become "the heartbeat of the U.S. Soccer team at age 18," according to the Denver Post. The Borussia Dortmund midfield player made his national team debut on March 29, 2016, and has since become a regular fixture in both the Bundesliga and U.S.A. Soccer's No. 10 shirt.
Comparisons are already being made with an idol of U.S. men's national soccer team who made the No. 10 jersey his own for many years: Landon Donovan. And while the talented Pulisic will no doubt be crucial to the pursuit of an automatic qualifying berth for Russia 2018, head coach Bruce Arena is quick to ensure that his feet are kept firmly on the ground when comparisons are made.
"He does remind me of Landon, but he has a long way to go before he gets to stand next to Landon."
Another man who needs little introduction to fans of the U.S. men's national soccer team became the oldest scorer of a hat-trick on Saturday. Clint Dempsey's three goals, his second career hat-trick for the national side, moved him within two goals of Donovan's all-time scoring record (57).
The 34-year-old attacking midfielder has enjoyed an extended swansong to his stellar career, with 24 of his national team goals coming after the age of 30. And those goals are as crucial now as they ever have been, as he helps guide the talented younger generation of players, like Pulisic, toward what would surely be his final Fifa World Cup appearance.
Alongside him in this group of experienced players is goalkeeper Tim Howard. Back playing in the U.S. after successful spells at Everton FC and Manchester United in the English Premier League, the American stopper has been a stalwart of the national side since 2007 after making his debut in 2002.
And despite recently turning 38-years-old, Howard remains one of the key players in the U.S. men's national soccer team as well as one of the most experienced players to put on the jersey. As with all goalkeepers, his good form will be absolutely crucial in the games to come. Thankfully for the U.S., Howard's passion shows no signs of lessening as he looks forward to winning his 113th cap.The U.S. men's national team continue their journey towards the Fifa World Cup 2018 in Russia, with tonight's away game against Panama.
[Featured Image by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images]