With only two matches left in the World Cup qualifiers, several big name teams have struggled to get through their qualifying matches.
The United States currently sit fourth in the CONCACAF standings with two matches remaining. According to Bruce Arena, the head coach, the U.S. need at least four points from their games against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago to ensure a chance at qualifying for Russia. The U.S.’ first match will be held in Orlando on Friday night at 7:35 p.m., while their last match will be away in Trinidad and Tobago next Tuesday (October 10).
All eyes will be on the 19-year-old wonderkid Christian Pulisic who has excelled during his tenure with Borussia Dortmund over the past two seasons. The American squad will be filled with Arena’s typical MLS based selections, while a few players ply their trade abroad, such as Bobby Wood (Hannover 96) and Geoff Cameron (Stoke City). Questions have been asked about the U.S.’ defending after going down early in matches against both Honduras and Panama earlier in the qualification. Arena anticipates a highly contested match with Panama, whom he suspects will focus on keeping the U.S. off the scoresheet rather than scoring themselves, since they have a superior goal difference.
A fourth place finish means the U.S. would face a two-leg playoff scenario against Australia or Syria next month. While the U.S. is a stronger squad than both teams on paper, anything is possible on the pitch, especially with the pressure of World Cup qualification looming. Much attention will be on Bruce Arena, who replaced the fired Jürgen Klinsmann following a winless start to World Cup qualification through the first two games. Klinsmann, a former German international player and coach, was facing criticism for encouraging the top American players to seek a career in the most competitive leagues in the world, located in Europe, instead of the MLS, much to the ire of MLS executives and fans.
Outside of CONCACAF qualifying, there is drama abound. The runners up in the 2014 World Cup, Argentina, currently sit fifth in the group, and level on points and goal difference with Peru. A win against Peru on Friday puts Argentina in the driver’s seat for an automatic qualification to Russia in 2018, but a loss or draw puts them in a vulnerable position. It is hard to imagine a World Cup without Lionel Messi, one of the best players to have touched a soccer ball. Argentina will hope history does not repeat itself because back in 1969, a 2-2 draw against Peru cost Argentina a place in the World Cup the following year in Mexico, which was the only World Cup for which they have failed to qualify.
Argentina face an uphill climb as star striker Sergio Agüero faces six weeks out after a car accident during his holiday in Amsterdam. Agüero was a passenger in a taxi that slammed into a telephone pole following a Maluma (a famous Colombian musician) concert in the Dutch city. However, Argentina have an abundance of clinical strikers such as Juventus’ Pablo Dybala and Inter Milan’s Mauro Icardi.
Elsewhere in South American qualifying, Chile and Paraguay face tough matches in order to reach the World Cup Final. Chile will face Ecuador in a must-win scenario for both sides, since both teams sit outside the automatic qualification places. Paraguay will need all three points against third-place Colombia in order to qualify.
In Europe, the Netherlands face a daunting task of qualification, sitting three points behind Sweden, who they host on the final matchday next Tuesday. A win against Belarus on Friday will keep the Dutch’s playoff hopes alive, but qualification seems unlikely. The usual suspects of England, Germany, and Belgium have already or will soon book their ticket to Russia after a convincing performance in qualification.
By Daniel Banta and Brian Boon.