SAN JOSE, Calif. — Is the U.S. national team's World Cup qualifier against Honduras on Friday a must win? Not in the most literal sense of the term. But in practical terms, anything short of a victory would be disastrous for the U.S.
It might be tough for some to quantify just how serious a problem the Americans are facing. After all, there are eight matches to go in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying – how bad could things be? Even a loss Friday would leave the Americans 21 points to play for in a Hex round where teams have finished with as few as 13 points and still made it to a World Cup.
While this may be the case, history isn't on the U.S. team's side if a third straight qualifying loss happens Friday. A closer look at past World Cup cycles shows that bad starts tend to spell doom for World Cup qualifying hopes.
Here are three stats to consider: First, no team has reached a World Cup after failing to record a point in the first three rounds of the Hex. Second, no team has lost its first two home games in the Hex and qualified for the World Cup. Third, no team has secured an automatic place in the World Cup with just one point from its first three Hex matches.
Those facts alone are why some are seeing fit to trot out the "must-win" label so early in this qualifying cycle, and why the pressure is on the U.S. to turn things around starting Friday.
In the five previous editions of the Hex — which began with the 1998 World Cup qualifying cycle — a total of 15 teams have earned automatic qualification to the World Cup. Of the 15, 13 were sitting on four points or more after three matches. The Mexico team that qualified for the 2010 World Cup earned just three points from the first three matches of the Hex. Then you have the Jamaica team that qualified for the 1998 World Cup as the only side to secure a top-three spot in the Hex — and the automatic World Cup berth that goes with it — after managing fewer than three points after three games (that team had two points).
In other words, even a win Friday doesn't change the fact the U.S. is climbing out of a steep hole, but a third loss would be like a boulder being tossed into that hole.
The reality is that a draw wouldn't remove the U.S. from the danger zone, but it would at least leave the Americans a precedent they could point to for hope in the face of long odds. Only one team has reached a World Cup after managing one point from its first three Hex matches: the Trinidad and Tobago side that reached the 2006 World Cup. What the Soca Warriors did was truly impressive because not only had they played two of their first three matches at home, they had yet to face Mexico, which should have been enough to spell doom for their World Cup chances.
A strong finish to the Hex, led by former Columbus Crew standout Stern John, helped Trinidad and Tobago win three of its final four matches to edge out Guatemala for fourth place, and a spot in a World Cup playoff. The Soca Warriors then beat Bahrain to secure a place in the 2006 World Cup.
That will be the path American fans hang their hat on if the U.S. only manages a draw Friday, though a more recent miracle run that also provides hope is Mexico's path to the 2014 World Cup. That El Tri team did have a bad start to the Hex by their lofty standards, but it was in the form of three draws, which meant three points after three matches. Mexico actually went unbeaten in its first six matches, but five of those six were draws, which is why El Tri wound up needing some help from the U.S. in the final match to book a place at the 2014 World Cup.
The reality is the U.S. has never had a start this bad in the Hex. The fewest points the U.S. has ever managed from the first three matches of the Hex is four, which happened in the 1998 and 2014 World Cup cycles.
The good news is that the U.S. has a veteran nucleus, led by Jozy Altidore, Michael Bradley, Tim Howard and DaMarcus Beasley, who have all played major parts in multiple World Cup qualifying cycles. Then you have Bruce Arena, who knows a little something about getting results at home in the Hex. He led the U.S. through the 2002 and 2006 cycles and compiled a 9-1 record in home Hex qualifiers, outscoring opponents 19-4, though that one loss did come against Honduras back in 2001.
That isn't history Arena or the U.S. has any interest in repeating.