The upcoming 10 days have the makings of one of most important stretches in U.S. soccer history. The U.S. men’s national team has two games remaining to qualify for next summer’s World Cup. Two victories would ensure qualification, Anything less could land the United States in a difficult playoff against either Syria or Australia — or it could miss out entirely. It’s all up for grabs next weekend, both in terms of the World Cup and how many of the key figures on the national team are remembered.
For one, head coach Bruce Arena’s legacy is up for grabs. Arena, who took over after the United States lost its first two games of this round of qualification under Jurgen Klinsmann, was supposed to be steadily steering the team back to its normal place near the top of the standings. Instead, the United States’ September qualifiers resulted in an ugly home loss to Costa Rica and a lucky road draw in Honduras.
Arena seems blasé about his role, insisting that coaches get far too much blame or credit for what happens on the field. Rightly or wrongly, though, if the United States misses out on the World Cup for the first time since 1986, Arena will take a huge chunk of the blame. The coach, who was already fired once by U.S. Soccer after a disappointing 2006 World Cup, would be remembered as a twice-failed national-team head coach.
The legacies of some of the United States’ best-ever players are also up for grabs. For most of Klinsmann’s tenure, players could point to the manager’s endlessly curious personnel decisions as the cause of any problems, absolving themselves of responsibility. Under Arena, though, some of the United States’ biggest names look lost. That loss at home to Costa Rica was as bad as any that Klinsmann’s teams ever produced. Fail to qualify, and such players as Tim Howard, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey would be remembered as the generation that was given everything — from endless support to big paychecks — and still failed.
It all comes down to the next 10 days: Friday, against Panama in Orlando, and the following Tuesday, in a tiny stadium in Trinidad and Tobago. The United States will be favored in both games and should win both. But that also was true in September, and the Americans came away with one point out of a possible six. The United States is in fourth place, one point behind Panama and tied with Honduras. Third place automatically qualifies. Fourth place goes into the playoff, Fifth place goes home until the qualifiers start for 2022. Missing out entirely, or losing the playoff, would be considered the greatest failure in American soccer history.
The United States will struggle to piece together a defense, with both first-choice center backs John Brooks and Geoff Cameron currently injured. Most of the team’s strikers, such as Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Dempsey, haven’t been stellar with their club teams. Midfielder Christian Pulisic was bullied out of both games in September.
In the end, the United States could qualify easily. Or it could choke.
• Kudos to Fox and ESPN for coming together to broadcast two nights of Liga MX games, in the hopes of driving donations to relief efforts for victims of the Mexican earthquakes and the hurricanes that have devastated the Gulf. Not only was it a great cause, it was a rare opportunity for American viewers to see Mexican soccer in English.
• Christian Pulisic has earned most of the hype, but another American teenager is making waves in the Bundesliga, too. Weston McKennie (above), who came out of the FC Dallas youth system, has started the past two games for Schalke in central midfield. He so impressed the team that it signed the 19-year-old to a new five-year contract.
• It might be very early in the Premier League season, but it’s hard not to see a big three emerging at the top of the pack. The two Manchester sides are setting an impossible pace. Chelsea’s only blip was a goofy opening-day loss to Burnley in which the Blues played much of the game with nine men. All three have so far navigated the Champions League well, too. It will be hard for the rest of England to keep pace.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Bundesliga: Borussia Dortmund at Augsburg, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Dortmund may have gotten hammered by Real Madrid in the Champions League in midweek, but in Germany, BVB is still the undefeated league leader. Augsburg is a surprise, near the top of the table, including a home victory over highly rated RB Leipzig.
Premier League: Manchester City at Chelsea, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, NBCSN. Chelsea looks excellent so far, but Manchester City looks simply unstoppable. The Citizens have won seven consecutive matches, across all competitions, and have outscored their opponents 26-2 in that span. This is a statement game for both teams.
Liga MX: Chivas at Tigres, 7 p.m. Saturday, Univision. It’s no surprise to see Tigres near the top of the standings this fall, but — surprisingly — Chivas has managed just one victory in 10 games. Alan Pulido is back in the lineup for the Goats, which should bolster an attack that has lacked difference-makers all season.
Serie A: Roma at AC Milan, 11 a.m. Sunday, beIN. Will the real Milan please stand up? Is it the high-powered, big-money side that’s poised to challenge Juventus at the top of Italy? Or the side that was hammered 4-1 by Lazio and beaten 2-0 at Sampdoria? Roma, and striker Edin Dzeko, will be a stern test.