The Road to Russia starts in the shadow of the Gateway Arch on Friday. Jurgen Klinsmann and his players are poised to embark on a lengthy, perilous journey to qualify for the 2018 FIFA World Cup. Those efforts start against St. Vincent and the Grenadines at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Mo. They expect them to end with a place in the World Cup firmly in hand by October 2017.
Qualifying for the World Cup is a complicated, unique process. The demands vary from region to region. The difficulty fluctuates depending on the assignment. Inevitably, there are hurdles encountered and setbacks incurred.
Article continues below ...
As the Americans prepare to start their voyage toward a place in the World Cup, here is a look at how the next couple of years are poised to unfold.
How does FIFA allocate World Cup berths?
2018 FIFA WORLD CUP — BIDS BY CONFEDERATION
NUMBER OF BIDS
13 + 1 automatic qualifier (Russia)
CONMEBOL (S. America)
CONCACAF (N. America)
The FIFA Executive Committee meets prior to the official draw to distribute bids to each confederation. In a meeting held in May, the Executive Committee agreed to retain the 32-team field and the same allocation of berths to each confederation for the 2018 World Cup.
CONCACAF has three-and-a-half bids. How are they awarded?
Every confederation establishes qualifying tournaments to determine their representatives at the World Cup. CONCACAF revamped its setup prior to this qualification process for the 35 entrants. The confederation outlined a five-round process with three home-and-home rounds, a semifinal round with 12 total teams arranged in three groups of four and the final round known as the Hexagonal. It then staged a preliminary draw in January to confirm where teams would enter the process.
Why did the U.S. skip the first three rounds?
CONCACAF ranked every participating member association from 1-35 based on the FIFA rankings published in August 2014. The top six teams — Costa Rica, Mexico, USA, Honduras, Panama and Trinidad & Tobago — earned a free pass straight to the semifinal round. They were joined by the six winners from the third-round ties.
How is the semifinal round set up?
The 12 remaining teams were drawn into three groups of four in July. The teams were placed into three pots — the top three seeds in Pot 1, the teams seeded three through six in Pot 2 and the six third-round winners in Pot 3 — and plucked out of those pots accordingly to comprise the groups.
Each team plays home and home against the other teams in its group. The top two finishers in each group advance to the Hexagonal. The fixtures start on Friday and run through next October.
Is there a magic number of points required to advance from the semifinal round?
Yes, give or take. Every team with 11 or more points has reached the Hexagonal since CONCACAF introduced this semifinal round format back in 1998.
Are Jurgen Klinsmann and his players really in danger at this stage?
USA SCHEDULE — SEMIFINAL ROUND
Nov. 13, 2015
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Nov. 17, 2015
Trinidad and Tobago
Port of Spain, T&T
March 25, 2016
March 29, 2016
Sept. 2, 2016
St. Vincent and the Grenadines
Sept. 6, 2016
Trindad and Tobago
Probably not. Group C is the weakest of the three final round groups, even with potentially tricky trips to Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago on tap. And the Americans have sterling record at this juncture of the competition: five appearances, five first-place finishes.
Trinidad & Tobago is by far the most imposing adversary after performing well at the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer, but it would take something quite screwy indeed for Guatemala or St. Vincent and the Grenadines to threaten the Americans’ spot in the Hex.
Then again, the Americans did need a last-minute Eddie Johnson goal to avoid drawing at Antigua and Barbuda at this stage back in 2012. Moral of the story: caution and diligence are still required in these circumstances.
So what is the Hexagonal, anyways?
As you might have guessed, it involves six teams. The final round of qualifying comprises home and away games against the other five teams. The 10-match schedule starts in November 2016 and runs through October 2017.
Is it the same sort of deal?
Not by a long shot. These are difficult games against organized, committed opponents capable of reaching the World Cup. It is an arduous slog filled with twists and turns. Even the top teams drop points along the way.
Need proof? Just ask Mexico. El Tri finished fourth and needed to defeat New Zealand in a two-legged playoff to qualify for Brazil.
And yet the Americans always finds a way through?
Indeed they do. U.S. Soccer is unblemished in five trips through the Hex. The formula for success is fairly straightforward: win your home games, pick up points wherever possible away from home (usually not in Mexico or Costa Rica, though). U.S. teams are particularly good on the first point and reasonably assured on the second.
If everything unravels and the U.S. somehow finishes fourth, then how does that half slot come into play?
The fourth-place finisher in CONCACAF faces a two-legged playoff against the fifth-place team in Asia for a berth.
Are there any other points worth noting as this quest commences?
Expect the U.S. to rely on a vast number of players along this complicated path. U.S. coaches have used at least 38 players in each of the past four qualifying campaigns. The key point: The route to the World Cup does not reflect how a team will look once the big tournament arrives.