Who could USA face in a World Cup 2018 play-off?

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With Bruce Arena's side not yet assured of a direct path to next summer's finals, Goal takes a look at the path that might lie ahead

It is do-or-die time for the United States men's national team in World Cup 2018 qualifying.

Bruce Arena's team is facing the prospect of a two-legged inter-confederation play-off tie against an Asian team if it cannot beat Panama and Trinidad & Tobago to secure a spot in the top three of CONCACAF's fifth round (known as the Hex).

USA 8/15 to beat Panama

The fourth-place team in the Hex takes on that Asian opponent for one of the two final places in Russia up for grabs.

USA host Panama, who currently sit one point ahead of them in third, in Orlando on Friday night in a game that is being labelled the Stars and Stripes' biggest in 15 years.

In the event that the States has to do it the hard way, Goal has all the information you need to know about how the play-off will work and who the opposition could be.


WHAT IS THE INTER-CONFEDERATION PLAY-OFF?


Bobby Wood Tim Howard Michael Bradley USA

Twenty-nine of the 32 places at a World Cup finals are guaranteed berths and split up between five of FIFA's six confederations, which organize soccer on each continent.

UEFA (Europe) gets 13 guaranteed places, CAF (Africa) gets five, AFC (Asia) gets four, CONMEBOL (South America) gets four and CONCACAF (North & Central America) gets three.

Of the other three places, one goes to the hosts - Russia, on this occasion - and the two remaining are decided by two-legged inter-confederation play-offs.

These play-offs take the next-best team that hasn't already qualified from the AFC, CONMEBOL and CONCACAF and the best team from the OFC (Oceania), which does not get a guaranteed berth.

CONCACAF's team - which could be the USA - faces the AFC's representative and CONMEBOL's team plays the OFC's side.


WHEN IS THE PLAY-OFF?


Jozy Altidore USA Gold Cup

FIFA is yet to confirm exactly when the inter-confederation play-off games will be played, but both legs will take place sometime between November 6 and 14.

USA's potential involvement could be problematic when it comes to the MLS playoffs as all four conference semi-finals are currently scheduled for November 5, creating a tight window in which to fit in a two-legged tie.

Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris, Matt Besler, Graham Zusi and Darlington Nagbe are among those in line to be involved in MLS postseason games.


WHO COULD THE USA FACE?


Australia Syria

The USA would face the winners of the Asian play-off tie between Australia and Syria.

Those two countries were the third-place finishers in the two groups in round three of AFC qualification and went into a two-legged matchup similar to the inter-confederation play-off as a result.

Syria, who have never qualified for the World Cup finals, has been playing their home matches in Malaysia due to the security problems posed by its ongoing civil war.

Both nations place lower than the USA (28th) in FIFA's world rankings; Australia currently sits 50th and Syria is in 75th position.


HOW CAN I WATCH THE PLAY-OFF?


Clint Dempsey USA

The home leg of any USA play-off tie will be broadcast by Fox Sports or ESPN in English and Univision in Spanish. Those networks are U.S. Soccer broadcast partners.

The away leg is more complicated as the rights to a World Cup qualifier are the property of the host federation, which can then distribute them to networks across the world (or hire a company to do that for them).

That system has created some problems for U.S. fans during the current cycle as all of their road games have been broadcast on beIN Sports, which currently reaches far fewer homes than Fox or ESPN's channels.

BeIN Sports' deal is with CONCACAF nations (other than the USA and Mexico), though, and so will not apply to the play-offs.

Theoretically, Fox and ESPN will be able to submit bids to the Australian or Syrian federation for the rights to the away match should the USA be contesting the tie.


THE TABLE AS IT STANDS


Pos Team Pld W D L GD Pts
1 Mexico (Q) 8 5 3 0 +8 18
2 Costa Rica (P) 8 4 3 1 +7 15
3 Panama 8 2 4 2 +2 10
4 USA 8 2 3 3 +1 9
5 Honduras 8 2 3 3 -7 9
6 Trinidad & Tobago (E) 8 1 0 7 -11 3

Teams in bold are in position to qualify for the World Cup directly, while the fourth-place team in italics is in position to qualify for the inter-confederation play-off.

Teams marked with a (Q) have qualified, teams marked with a (P) are assured of at least a place in the play-off and teams marked with an (E) have been eliminated.

Mexico has guaranteed their place at the finals, while Costa Rica needs only one more point from their final two games to join them.

Panama currently sits one point ahead of the USA and those teams meet in a huge game in Orlando on Friday night. If Panama wins, the USA's only chance of reaching the World Cup is through the play-off.

If Panama wins and Honduras loses away to Costa Rica, Panama has qualified.

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If Panama wins and Honduras draws, Panama won't have qualified officially but it will take an unrealistic goal-difference swing in the final games for Honduras to overtake them.

For the same reason, the USA is virtually guaranteed to qualify if they win both games. The Americans' final match is away at Trinidad & Tobago, while Honduras plays Mexico at home and Panama hosts Costa Rica.


THE REMAINING GAMES


Date Match Time (ET)
Oct 6 USA vs Panama 19:35
Oct 6 Mexico vs Trinidad & Tobago 21:30
Oct 6 Costa Rica vs Honduras 22:00
Oct 10 Honduras vs Mexico 20:00
Oct 10 Panama vs Costa Rica 20:00
Oct 10 Trinidad & Tobago vs USA 20:00

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