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

There will be just two final sets of matches 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 will enter those final sets of matches with some confidence that a repeat of the 2018 qualifying failure is a remote possibility at this point given the current point total amassed. Back in 2018 the USMNT managed to lose at home to Costa Rica and it 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 have been in a constant state of unease after that experience.

MORE: USMNT roster for World Cup qualifying

So far so good for the 2022 edition. The USMNT is in strong position after eight matches (2nd 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 the kind of stress that comes with fourth place. We analyze how the Americans could potentially avoid it entirely and lock up a top-three finish.

1. Canada 16 8 4 0 4 13 5 +8
2. USA 15 8 4 1 3 12 5 +7
3. Mexico 14 8 4 2 2 11 7 +4
4. Panama 14 8 4 2 2 11 9 +2
5. Costa Rica 9 8 2 3 3 6 7 -1
6. Jamaica 7 8 1 3 4 6 10 -4
7. El Salvador 6 8 1 4 3 4 10 -6
8. Honduras 3 8 0 5 3 5 15 -10

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 lead-up to Qatar 2022).

MORE: Which teams have already qualified to the World Cup?

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.

Qualifying 1st 2nd 3rd 4th 5th 6th 7th 8th
1998 1.8 1.7 1.4 1.2 1.0 0.6
2002 2.3 1.7 1.7 1.4 0.8 0.5
2006 2.2 2.2 1.6 1.3 1.1 0.2
2010 2.0 1.9 1.6 1.6 0.8 0.6
2014 2.2 1.8 1.5 1.1 0.8 0.5
2018 2.1 1.6 1.3 1.3 1.2 0.6
2022* 2.0 1.9 1.7 1.7 1.1 0.9 0.7 0.4 0.4

* = Current points per game based on 2022 CONCACAF qualifying standings after seven 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 1.9 points per game clip with six matches left to play. But the margins are fine: Teams that fall in the 1.6 points-per-game territory have sweated it out during some of the past World Cup cycles.

After a slow start to its 2022 World Cup qualifying schedule, back-to-back wins lifted the USMNT to a more favorable 1.7 and 2.0 points per game. Although the road loss to Panama on Oct. 10 got the fanbase agitated again, it’s back to the 2.0 clip thanks to the win over Mexico.

USMNT World Cup qualifying schedule

Match Date Opponent / Result Highlights PPG
1 Thurs, Sept. 2, 2021 El Salvador 0, USA 0 Highlights 1.0
2 Sun, Sept. 5, 2021 USA 1, Canada 1 Highlights 1.0
3 Wed, Sept. 8, 2021 Honduras 1, USA 4 Highlights 1.7
4 Thurs, Oct. 7, 2021 USA 2, Jamaica 0 Highlights 2.0
5 Sun, Oct. 10, 2021 Panama 1, USA 0 Highlights 1.6
6 Wed, Oct. 13, 2021 USA 2, Costa Rica 1 Highlights 1.8
7 Fri, Nov. 12, 2021 USA 2, Mexico 0 Highlights 2.0
8 Tues. Nov. 16, 2021 Jamaica 1, USA 1 Highlights 1.9

So what needs to realistically happen for the U.S. to be comfortably in that 1.7-1.8 points-per-game 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 perfect 3-0-0 at home the rest of the way, that would put the U.S. right at the 1.8 points-per-game level, and presumably in a comfortable position.

MORE: Why there is no VAR in CONCACAF qualifying

So what’s clear is that, in addition to doing the business at home, the U.S. needs to pull off one or two more big results (e.g., win in Canada or Mexico) to really be able to cruise and 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, at least 11 to 14 more points from the last 18 available.

Turning just one draw into a win in the projected scenario of results outlined below would push the USA’s points per game above that magic 1.8 mark which has been enough to qualify in the past.

USMNT results projection (3W-2L-1D)

Match Date Opponent / Result PPG
9 Thursday Jan. 27, 2022 USA 2, El Salvador 0 (Win) 2.0
10 Sunday Jan. 30, 2022 Canada 1, USA 0 (Loss) 1.8
11 Wednesday Feb. 2, 2022 USA 2, Honduras 1 (Win) 1.9
12 Thursday March 24, 2022 Mexico 1, USA 0 (Loss) 1.7
13 Sunday March 27, 2022 USA 1, Panama 0 (Win) 1.8
14 Wednesday March 30, 2022 Costa Rica 0, USA 0 (Draw) 1.8 

CONCACAF standings tiebreakers

There’s always a possibility that the CONCACAF standings are extra tight and that 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:

  1. Goal difference in all group matches
  2. Most goals scored in all group matches
  3. Most points obtained from group matches between teams concerned
  4. Goal difference from group matches between teams concerned
  5. Most goals scored in group matches between teams concerned
  6. Goals scored away from home (if two teams are tied)
  7. Discipline points (based on yellow/red cards)
  8. Drawing of lots by FIFA

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

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