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USMNT's road to Russia 2018 looks easier than last World Cup qualifying cycle

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The United States dodged a bunch of bullets in the preliminary World Cup draw.

FIFA made the preliminary draw for 2018 World Cup qualification in Russia on Saturday, and it worked out well for the United States. They avoided the toughest teams they could have come up against in the fourth round of CONCACAF qualifying.

Mexico and Costa Rica were kept separate from the USA, but they could have drawn Honduras or Panama. Instead, the strongest team in their group is Trinidad and Tobago -- a decent, team, but arguably the worst of the six who made this stage of qualifying automatically. The other two teams in Group C will be the winner of a match between St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Aruba, and the Antigua and Barbuda vs. Guatemala winner. The U.S. avoided potential draws against the likes of Canada, Jamaica and Haiti, which could have proven tricky.

The top two teams will advance from each group to the final round of qualifying. Last time around, the U.S. almost failed to make it out of this stage of qualifying, and were saved by a 90th-minute winner by Eddie Johnson against Antigua and Barbuda. That took the pressure off going into their home match against Guatemala, which they won.

The USMNT will learn who the other two teams in their group are on September 8, when the third round of qualifying is completed. The fourth round of qualifying should begin in November and conclude in September of 2016. The fifth round -- known as the Hex -- will get underway in February of 2017.

Three of the top six teams in that final stage will qualify directly for the World Cup, while the fourth-placed team goes to an inter-continental playoff against the fifth-placed team from Asia.