How USA can qualify for World Cup in Qatar: Explaining scenarios facing USMNT in 2022

After November’s World Cup qualifiers, there will be just two final windows in January and March 2022 that will determine which three lucky nations from the CONCACAF region (North America, Central America and the Caribbean) will head to Qatar for the World Cup next November.

The U.S. men’s national team would prefer to enter those final sets of matches with a little breathing room so that a repeat of 2018 does not occur. That’s when the USMNT managed to lose at home to Costa Rica and fell on the road to already-eliminated Trinidad & Tobago on the final day. Those two results ultimately eliminated the Americans from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

After qualifying for the previous seven FIFA World Cups, it felt like a foregone conclusion the U.S. would always make it to the big dance. But the humbling lesson that 2018 taught fans and players alike is that the slightest misstep in qualifying could bring about devastating consequences, and no result can be taken for granted in the CONCACAF region. U.S. fans are now in a constant state of unease after that experience.

So here we are once again: The USMNT is in a decent spot after six matches (second place) with the top three finishers heading to Qatar after the 14 matches are played. The fourth-place team will be offered the fallback of a play-in series against a wild card team from another region. But many U.S. fans might not be able to handle that kind of stress. We analyze how the Americans could potentially avoid it entirely and lock up a top-three finish.

How many points to qualify for the World Cup?

If we’re using past regional World Cup qualifying cycles for historical comparisons, we need to use the points per game metric (PPG), since there were only 10 matches played in the CONCACAF final round in past years (compared to the 14 on the calendar in the quest for a ticket to Qatar 2022).

The top three spots (points per game in bold) qualified directly to each World Cup listed below. And beginning with the 2006 World Cup, the fourth-place team advanced to a play-in series against a nation from another region.

* = Current points per game based on 2022 CONCACAF qualifying standings after six matches

What leaps out from the above table is that a 1.7 or 1.8 points-per-game figure (or greater) seems to be the magic number. The USMNT is currently on a 1.8 points per game clip with eight matches left to play. But the margins are fine: Teams that fall in the 1.6 points-per-game territory are sweating it out during some of the past World Cup cycles.

After a slow start to its World Cup qualifying schedule, back-to-back wins lifted the USMNT to a more favorable 1.7 and 2.0 points per game. But the road loss to Panama on Oct. 10 got the fanbase agitated again.

USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule

So what needs to realistically happen for the U.S. to be comfortably in the range it needs to qualify without breaking a sweat?

We took a stab at projecting a series of upcoming results, taking a less favorable set of outcomes: road losses to Mexico and Canada, and road draws to Jamaica and Costa Rica. Assuming the USMNT is also capable of going a near perfect 3-0-1 at home the rest of the way, that would put the U.S. at the precarious 1.6 points-per-game level, where anything could happen in the standings.

So what’s clear is that, in addition to doing the business at home, the U.S. needs to pull off a big result or two (e.g., win in Jamaica or Costa Rica, and/or beat Mexico in Cincinnati) to avoid the pressure that proved crippling just four years ago, when the Americans failed to secure the result they needed on the final day of 2018 qualifying. In other words, 14 more points from the last 24 available.

Turning just one draw into a win in the projected scenario of results outlined below would push the U.S.’s points per game from 1.6 to a more comfortable 1.8, a mark which has been enough to qualify in the past.

USMNT results projection (3W-2L-3D)

CONCACAF standings tiebreakers

There’s always a possibility that the CONCACAF standings are extra tight and the U.S. is tied on points with one or more of the seven other nations in the qualifying standings. Tiebreakers would come into play.

Here are the standings tiebreakers for teams even on points:

The Qatar World Cup will be played from Nov. 21 to Dec. 18, 2022.

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