The U.S. felt good about its qualifying chances heading into the final game of qualifying in 2017.

Bruce Arena and co. beat Panama by four goals in Orlando and traveled to Trinidad & Tobago. All the USMNT really had to do was show up, and they held a spot in Russia. Of the 27 potential scenarios that could have happened, one knocked the U.S. out of the tournament officially.

Unfortunately, that one scenario is exactly what happened. The U.S. sat at home while Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama enjoyed a trip to Russia.

Fast forward to the present day and the circumstances are eerily similar. The U.S. just beat Panama by four goals in Orlando. The USMNT is on the road for the final qualifying game, and the odds overwhelmingly favor qualification for the World Cup.

The team even unfurled a banner following Sunday’s win that read “QUALIFIED.” FOX analyst Alexi Lalas guaranteed a berth at the World Cup in a segment on The Herd with Colin Cowherd on Monday.

But due to the failure in Couva, many fans wont believe they’re in until the final whistle has blown and the US are in fact in.

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Goal differential’s importance

Doom and gloom from four years ago aside, this window of qualifying has gone about as well as it possibly could have for the United States.

A scoreless draw in Mexico City could have actually been a win. However, a point is a point in a hostile environment. Then, the U.S. got back to business by taking Panama to the woodshed on Sunday night.

He did not say it following the game. However, USMNT fans should applaud Gregg Berhalter for ensuring his players knew the importance of goal differential in its game against Panama. A 4-0 lead at halftime before an eventually 5-1 win certainly padded the crucial goal differential stats.

On the verge of qualifying

Now, the U.S. faces a scenario anything but a series of disasters puts them in the World Cup. By virtue of its win over Panama on Sunday the, U.S. can finish no worse than fourth. Panama is now eliminated, and the U.S. guaranteed its spot at the least in the intercontinental playoff. Fourth place in the group means a one-game playoff against the winner of OFC’s qualification to go to the group stages in Qatar.

However, even to finish fourth, the U.S. would have to lose to Costa Rica by at least six goals. Plus, Mexico must earn at least a point against El Salvador.

Playing in San Jose, Costa Rica, proves even more difficult than playing in Mexico City for the Americans. In the last three qualifying cycles, Costa Rica continuously steamrolls the Stars and Stripes. 2016 produced a 4-0 thumping. Before then, 2013 and 2009 both yielded 3-1 defeats to Costa Rica. The U.S. may not be as comfortable as some fans hoped.

Despite the poor record in Costa Rica, the U.S. actually holds an edge on the all-time rivalry. The USMNT has 19 wins to Costa Rica’s 16, with the two sides playing to six draws.

Also, the U.S. won the last time these two played. At field in Columbus, OH, the U.S. turned around an early 1-0 deficit to grab its third win of World Cup qualifying.

Costa Rica in qualifying

At the turn of the calendar to 2022, Costa Rica faced a real threat of not qualifying for Qatar. They won just two of their first eight games, both at home against two of the lowest finishing teams in the Octagonal.

The new year, however, brought renewed fortune for the Ticos. The January/February window saw them post a 1-0 win over Panama, a 0-0 draw away to Mexico, and a 1-0 win in Kingston against Jamaica. They then got a 1-0 win over the top ranked Canadians last week before grinding out a 2-1 win over a scrappy El Salvador team to put themselves in a spot to finish no worse than 4th.

Much like Panama they rely on an incredibly old roster to have one more shot at World Cup glory. Star goalkeeper Keylor Navas is 35 years old with 105 caps to his name. Defenders like Bryan Oviedo and Kendall Waston are 32 and 34 and have 67 and 52 caps, respectively. In the midfield Bryan Ruiz, the captain, is 36 years old with 137 caps. Meanwhile, Celso Borges is 33 with 145 caps. Finally, up front, Johan Venegas is 33 with 72 caps and 11 goals. Strike partner Joel Campbell might be only 29. But, he still has 21 goals in 109 appearances for Costa Rica.

Nation Record Points
Canada 8-4-1 28
United States 7-4-2 25
Mexico 7-4-2 25
Costa Rica 6-4-3 22
Panama 5-5-5 18
El Salvador 2-4-7 10
Jamaica 1-5-7 8
Honduras 0-4-9 4
When, where and how to watch

The last game of qualifying is scheduled for Wednesday, March 30 at 9:05 p.m. ET. The Estadio Nacional in San Jose, Costa Rica, hosts the tournament.

English-language coverage is available on CBS Sports Network. The Spanish-language broadcast is on Universo.