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How difficult is the USMNT's road to World Cup qualification?

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Tuesday night's loss to Costa Rica puts the USMNT in a difficult spot for earning a spot in Russia in 2018, but it’s not an impossible task.

United States v Ecuador: Quarterfinal - Copa America Centenario Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

After Tuesday’s embarrassing 4-0 loss against Costa Rica, the United States are in a decidedly less than ideal place for World Cup qualification. They have zero points after their first two matches, and with just eight matches left in the unforgiving environment of the Hex, that’s not a lot of time to turn things around, especially with how bad the USMNT looked in both games.

Now, the news isn’t all bad. Facing Mexico at home and Costa Rica away are the USMNT’s second- and third-toughest matches of the Hex. Until they head to the Estadio Azteca in June, the road is going to be easier. "Easier" doesn’t mean "cakewalk," though, and things are going to have to be much, much better if they’re going to get the job done and qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. And despite these bad results, they're still favorites to finish in the top three and very likely to finish top four, according to Paul Carr of ESPN Stats and Info.

Let’s look at what the U.S. need to do to qualify. They need to finish in at least third place to qualify directly to the World Cup from CONCACAF — and in the past five World Cup cycles, the team that finished in third place needed at least 14 points every time. The third-place finishers earned at least 16 points three of those five times, though, so let’s assume that’s the minimum threshold for the sake of safety. If you’re the type willing to gamble on the results of an intercontinental playoff to qualify and settle for fourth place, that took at least 11 points in each cycle and at least 13 three times, so let’s set that threshold there.

That means that the USMNT needs to get 16 points from eight matches, a large but not insurmountable sum. They have four home matches left, against Costa Rica, Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, and Panama — the Americans will now see all four as must-wins. Assuming they do that, that’s 12 points. From there, they need four points from four road matches. The match in Mexico will be tough, but if they get a win against one of Trinidad and Tobago, Honduras, or Panama away from home, they can sustain a loss against Mexico and then need only one more draw in the other two road matches.

Of course, lose or draw in one of the remaining home matches and the USMNT’s margin for error would be erased. That’s when trying to finish fourth and hoping for more would become the priority, though that’s obviously not something fans would be happy with — not that they’re happy after the way the team pretty much seemed to quit in the second half against Costa Rica, of course.

The good news is that with the matches they have ahead of them, third place is perfectly doable for the U.S. if they can turn this form around. It won’t be easy thanks to their poor start to the Hex, but it’s doable. They’ve started badly, but the USMNT's history against their opponents suggests they can get the job done. They’ll have to be focused and can’t afford any slipups now, but the odds still look very good that, come the end of the Hex, the U.S. will be booking passage to Russia in 2018.