Photo: David Zalubowski/AP

The United States Men’s National Soccer Team started out the last round of World Cup qualifiers in the most embarrassing way possible, losing to Mexico at home then getting ripped apart down in Costa Rica. The results were bad, although CONCACAF qualification is generous to say the least, though what was most disturbing was how hopelessly overmatched the U.S. looked. The 2018 World Cup, which starts in exactly one year, was always going to be a strange interlude for a team caught in between its talented generation of old guys led by Clint Dempsey and the new wave of feisty youngsters, but they looked like Wile E. Coyote chasing the Road Runner when the hexagonal round started.

Since then, things have turned all the way around. The team, led by the world’s greatest teenager, has won both of their most recent home games by a combined score of 8-0 and even scraped a point off of Mexico at the Azteca thanks to a Michael Bradley bomb and some staunch defending. The results have been there and the team looks younger and more exciting. There are four games left in qualification, and barring absolute disaster, the team can book their tickets to Russia.

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The top three teams in the hexagonal qualify automatically, while the fourth-place squad has to compete in a playoff with the fifth-place team from the Asian Football Confederation. The United States now stands in third, right ahead of Panama and three points above Honduras. Last night, those two teams played to a draw, which is the ideal result for the United States, since neither team is on equal footing with them anymore. The U.S. also has a very easy schedule left, with home dates against Panama and Costa Rica and road trips to Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago. The numbers look promising.

The home date with Costa Rica looms as perhaps the most critical match left, and even if the USMNT somehow lose, they’ll still be the best team in every other game. It’s tempting to award Bruce Arena all the credit for this turnaround, and while the team has looked better, remember that CONCACAF qualifying is a joke. Playing players in the positions they were supposed to goes a long way, and so does getting to feast on Trinindad & Tobago and Honduras at home.