The United States took only one of a possible six points from two recent 2018 World Cup soccer qualifiers, leaving the campaign in limbo with two matches left.
But with the race to Russia heading into the final full set of games next month, just eight of 32 slots have been filled. The host country didn’t have to qualify and three others are among the tournament’s usual suspects: Brazil, Mexico and South Korea.
Only one of Europe’s nine groups has been settled as teams jockey for position to earn a direct invitation to the World Cup or secure a place in November’s playoffs.
Here’s how things look in each confederation:
The Americans sit fourth in a six-nation group that will send at least three teams to Russia, but by defeating third-place Panama on Oct. 6 in Orlando and last-place Trinidad and Tobago four days later in Port-of-Spain, they’ll play in the big tournament for the eighth consecutive time.
Mexico is set and Costa Rica is almost assured of passage. The Panamanians would be thrilled with a draw against the United States, which would put them in position to clinch their first World Cup berth Oct. 10 at home against Costa Rica. Honduras remains in the running but has a terrible goal differential and must finish with Costa Rica and Mexico.
The fourth-place team will enter a two-leg playoff in November against Asia’s fifth-best side, Australia or Syria.
While Brazil has cruised to a 11-1-4 record in the bruising, 10-nation competition, no one else has broken from the pack. Teams in second through sixth place, vying for three or four additional berths, are separated by four points.
Uruguay (27) and Colombia (26) are just ahead of Peru (24), Argentina (24) and Chile (23), with Paraguay (21) clinging to life. Argentina, the 2014 World Cup finalist, is ranked No. 3 in the world, while Chile is No. 7 and Colombia eighth. All three are home Oct. 5; all on the road Oct. 10.
Uruguay has the most favorable outlook with remaining matches against the worst sides, Venezuela and Bolivia. Argentina’s route is not carefree: home against Peru and at Ecuador.
The fifth-place finisher, no matter who it is, will be heavily favored to defeat Oceania champion New Zealand in a two-leg playoff. At the moment, it’s Lionel Messi and Argentina. Good luck, Kiwis.
Twelve of UEFA’s 13 slots are open, with only Belgium on safe ground. Prime candidates to join the parade: France, Switzerland, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain and Croatia.
Eight of the nine second-place teams will head to playoffs in November. At the moment, that collection includes Euro 2016 champion Portugal and four-time World Cup winner Italy.
Germany, the reigning world champion, has been almost flawless: eight victories in eight matches and a 35-2 scoring margin. Second-place Northern Ireland (6-1-1) will host the Germans on Oct. 5.
The traditional power in the greatest trouble is Netherlands, third in unforgiving Group A behind France and Sweden. Its future will probably lie with the Oct. 10 home meeting against Sweden.
In the final round of qualifying, there were no surprise in Group A as Iran and South Korea claimed tickets to Russia. In Group B, however, Saudi Arabia beat out Australia for second behind Japan, leaving the Aussies to play Group A’s third-place team, Syria, for the right to face a North American side in a playoff.
With war at home, the Syrians have been playing home matches 4,700 miles away in Malaysia. They have never qualified for the World Cup, played in the Olympics just once (1980) and never advanced beyond the first round of the Asian Cup. Given the country’s problems and the team’s unremarkable history, it’s remarkable they’ve made it this far.
With matches scheduled into November, all five groups remain up for grabs. Tunisia and Nigeria are front-runners in groups A and B, respectively, while Ivory Coast is clinging to a one-point lead over Morocco in C.
Group D is upside-down with Burkina Faso and Cape Verde ahead of Senegal and South Africa. The latter two, however, have played one fewer match because a 2-1 victory by South Africa was annulled after FIFA banned the referee on corruption charges.
Ghana was favored in Group E, but the Black Stars are stuck in third place. Egypt can clinch its first berth in 28 years by winning at home against last-place Congo on Oct. 8.
This is a weak region, and with Australia moving to the Asian competition in 2006 for competitive reasons, New Zealand’s opponents are minnows. The All Whites went 7-0-2 with a 23-4 scoring advantage, including 8-3 in the two-leg finals against Solomon Islands. No automatic World Cup berth, however. A South American playoff opponent awaits.