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How the USA can qualify for the World Cup on Sunday vs. Panama

The USMNT have two games left in Concacaf World Cup qualifying, but even with a win against Panama on Saturday, there could still technically be work to do.

Christian Pulisic of United States acknowledges the fans after a match between Mexico and United States as part of Concacaf 2022 FIFA World Cup Qualifiers at Azteca Stadium on March 24, 2022 in Mexico City, Mexico. Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images

Team USA is just one game away from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup. A win on Sunday against fifth-place Panama and a little bit of help, and the USMNT will have redeemed themselves for the disaster of missing on Russia 2018. And as a host nation in the 2026 World Cup, they won’t have to go through this process again until the end of the decade.

But for now, there’s one more hurdle to clear.

The top three teams from the octagonal advance to the World Cup.

The fourth-place team will be part of an intercontinental playoff on June 13th or 14th in Qatar, where they will face one of New Zealand, Tahiti, the Solomon Islands, or Papua New Guinea. The identity of that team will be known on March 30th after the conclusion of the Oceania Football Confederation qualifying tournament, also taking place currently in Qatar.

Here are the current standings:

CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings, through March 24

  1. Canada, 7-4-1, 25 Points, Goal Difference +13 (At least in Intercontinental Playoff)
  2. USA, 6-4-2, 22 Points, GD +9
  3. Mexico, 6-4-2, 22 points, GD +6
  4. Costa Rica, 5-4-3, 19 points, GD +2
  5. Panama, 5-3-4, 18 Points, GD +1
  6. El Salvador, 2-4-6, 10 Points, GD -7 (Eliminated)
  7. Jamaica, 1-5-6, 8 points, GD -7 (Eliminated)
  8. Honduras, 0-4-8, 4 points, GD -17 (Eliminated)

Remaining qualifying schedule

The first matches listed below are on Sunday, March 27, and the second will take place on Wednesday, March 30th

Canada: vs. Jamaica, at Panama
USA: vs. Panama, at Costa Rica
Mexico: at Honduras, vs. El Salvador
Costa Rica: at El Salvador, vs. USA
Panama: at USA, vs. Canada

For the USA to ensure they’re qualified on Sunday they’ll need a win over Panama, and for Costa Rica to finish with a draw or loss at El Salvador. If that happens, the USA is through without having to deal with the intercontinental playoff.

Also if the US defeats Panama, no matter what happens with Costa Rica they’re assured of finishing no worse than fourth in the octagonal. That would get them into one-off inter-confederation playoff in Qatar, where the USMNT would be massive favorites, becomes the worst case scenario.

The only way they’d even have to deal with a playoff is if Costa Rica also managed to make up what is currently a seven-goal deficit in terms of goal difference between now and the final whistle on Wednesday in San Juan. Considering the status of both teams, that seems very, very unlikely.

And even with a draw or a loss vs. Panama Sunday, it still looks very good for the USA to advance. A win at Costa Rica on Wednesday, barring an eight-goal swing between the two teams on goal difference in their Sunday matches, would also see the USA advance. And as long as that eight-goal swing doesn’t happen on Sunday, a pair of draws against Panama and Costa Rica would also see the US through without a playoff.

So the short of it is that it’s very, very likely the USA will be in the 2022 World Cup. But they’re still not technically qualified, so they can’t start celebrating just yet.