Relieved after gaining a huge point in the tropical heat, U.S. players headed home Wednesday knowing their math for an eighth straight World Cup trip is clear.
Wins against Panama on Oct. 6 and at last-place Trinidad and Tobago four days later will ensure a trip to Russia next June. A loss to Panama in Orlando, Florida, would leave the Americans in deep trouble, needing help from other results.
"We have everything to play for," U.S. coach Bruce Arena after Tuesday's 1-1 tie.
Mexico (5-0-3) leads the final round of North and Central America and the Caribbean with 18 points and Costa Rica (4-1-3) has 15 and is on the verge of ensuring a spot. Panama (2-2-4) is third with 10 points, followed by the United States and Honduras (both 2-3-3) with nine. But the Americans are ahead on goal difference, plus-1 to minus-7. Trinidad (1-7) is last with three points,
While the first three teams earn berths, the fourth-place finisher advances to a playoff in November against Australia or Syria.
"It's never been easy. It's never going to be easy," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said.
By losing two home games in a qualifying cycle for the first time since 1957, the U.S. jeopardized a World Cup berth that has been taken for granted by many fans. Only Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Italy, South Korea, Spain and the U.S. have played in the last seven World Cups, and CONCACAF's format leaves margin for losses: Mexico went 2-3-5 in the hex four years ago but earned a playoff spot over Panama — thanks to Graham Zusi's stoppage-time goal — and routed New Zealand 9-3 in a playoff to qualify.
Playing without central defender John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin, the U.S. defense struggled at times with opponents' pace, both Tuesday and in Friday's 2-0 loss to Costa Rica in Harrison, New Jersey.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard, concentrating on his near post, was beaten to the far post for Costa Rica's first goal last week after defender Tim Ream was rounded. Then a poor pass by Geoff Cameron was intercepted, leading to the second goal by the Ticos. Honduras scored after an ineffective slide tackle by Omar Gonzalez left an open shot.
"We didn't do a good job on the goal," Arena admitted.
Yedlin could recover from a hamstring injury in time for next month's matches, but Brooks will be sidelined several months after tearing tendons in his right thigh on Aug. 13. Yedlin's return would inject pace and likely width to the American attack.
Overlooked is the Americans' first three-game road unbeaten streak in the hexagonal since 1997. But this will be the first time since 1989 the U.S. goes into its qualifying finale uncertain of a berth. On an afternoon when a tie would not have been enough, Paul Caligiuri's first-half goal gave the Americans a 1-1 win at Trinidad and their first World Cup appearance since 1950.
Since then, the U.S. clinched in Games 7 (2005), 8 (2013) and 9 (1997, 2001 and 2009). A playoff would be exhausting, with the Europe-based players traveling back to the U.S. for the first leg, then traveling for the second leg to Australia or Malaysia, where Syria has been playing home matches.
Major League Soccer-based players whose teams are eliminated may have had several weeks off heading into the mid-November games.
If the U.S. clinches in Trinidad, the November schedule likely would become a pair of exhibitions in Europe, a chance to test players in a less-pressured situation.
Arena repeatedly said Tuesday that nothing had been accomplished yet.
"We're going to get out of here," he said, "and not look back."