A 4-0 loss to Costa Rica on Tuesday was a historically bad result for the U.S. men’s national team in their second match of "the Hex," the nickname for the final round of World Cup qualifying. Even worse, it marked the first time the USMNT had lost both opening games in this round. But what does it mean for their World Cup qualifying hopes?
From a pure qualifying standpoint, it certainly does not mean they are out of the running. They should still qualify and they have plenty of opportunity to catch up. But their margin for error – more screw-ups like they experienced over the past five days – has diminished greatly.
Qualifying for the World Cup in CONCACAF can be relatively generous and, while the USMNT sit at the bottom of the standings right now, they still have another eight matches ahead in qualifying to change things. In 2014, Mexico managed to qualify with three losses, five draws and just two wins. Poor performances are more than allowed in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
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But the scary thing for the USMNT is that they are in new territory. Never have they lost the first two games of the Hex. Never have they come out of the first two games of the Hex without at least three points. In their first two games of this Hex, the USMNT has equaled the total losses they had in last cycle’s Hex. It’s also the first time the USMNT has lost consecutive World Cup qualifiers since 2001.
All of that puts the USMNT under pressure that is not familiar to them. While all of those dubious milestones may not end up meaning anything, they will need to prevent them from holding the team back when qualifying resumes in March.
Ever since CONCACAF adopted the Hex – six teams in a single table playing home-and-away matches – never has a team lost the first two matches of the Hex and qualified for the World Cup outright. Trinidad & Tobago did qualify in 2006 after losing their first two matches of the Hex, but only through an inter-confederation playoff for the "half spot" of the 3.5 available CONCACAF spots for the World Cup. But that came against a weak Bahrain team, and the USMNT would likely have tougher competition if they go the playoff route.
What their loss on Tuesday really means is that if they get their act together as World Cup qualifying continues, they can be just fine. But if they don’t, they will be in big, big trouble. They have qualified for the last seven World Cups and failure to do so again would be a catastrophe – but the USMNT is a long ways from that still.