World Cup: Now or (Maybe) November for U.S.

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US logoThe Hex has come down to the Triad for the United States men’s national team in its effort to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

A victory on Friday night against Panama at Orlando City Stadium would put the U.S. into the third and final automatic qualifying berth from the CONCACAF region. A draw or loss would leave the American team in a precarious position ahead of next Tuesday’s qualifying finale at Trinidad and Tobago (and where have we seen that before … hint … 1989).

While kickoff is scheduled for 7:35 p.m. Eastern (at least on FIFA.com), coverage begins on ESPN2 at 7 p.m. The match will also be carried by Univision and UDN, and can be followed on Facebook and Twitter, and at @ussoccer and@ussoccer_esp.

Mexico has already qualified and Costa Rica is on the cusp to securing its place. The third automatic berth remains up for grabs after the U.S. lost to the Ticos, 2-0, in September but then rallied to draw at Honduras, 1-1, a result that left the U.S. in control of its so-called destiny. The fourth-place finisher will head to a home-and-home playoff against either Australia or Syria in November.

“For the most part we’ve had a good year,” U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said earlier this week on SiriusXM FC. “We had a pretty big blip on the screen in the Costa Rica game. The result obviously wasn’t what we wanted but we’ve gone through 2017 and have only lost one game and people react like the roof has caved in here. We’re certainly not in the position we want to be in, but everything is in front of us. We’ll take on the next challenge on Friday night against Panama.”

In the last round of games, Arena said he was outcoached, then admitted that was a way for him to shield his players from criticism. But the two Central American clubs were more tactically astute than the American team, clamping down on both Michael Bradley and Christian Pulisic and daring the other U.S. players to beat them. They couldn’t.

“Michael has been a very good captain on this team and Clint Dempsey’s accepted the role we’ve given him,” Arena said in his radio interview. “At this point in his career he’s not a 90-minute player game in and game out in the international level. And he’s accepted that and he’s really helped our team in the role we’ve given him. Tim Howard knows that he’s got to play a little bit better in goal than he did in the Costa Rica game, but the combination of Howard and [Brad] Guzan in the goal has been good for us. We’re hopeful that continues in the next two games, it’s going to be really important. But we can’t depend on Christian, we need contributions out of [Darlington] Nagbe, [Jozy] Altidore, [Bobby] Wood, our back line has to be solid, our goalkeeping has to be solid. So we need a real team effort and we saw more of that in the Gold Cup when we had the group together for a long period of time, again, this is another short camp but I think we have the players’ attention and they’re going to be ready to play on Friday.”

The U.S. has played Panama 15 times since 2005, making Panama its second-most common opponent behind Mexico in that span. With an 11-1-6 record and 5-0-2 mark in qualifying, the U.S. has dominated the series with Panama, but Panama has proven difficult of late, playing the U.S. to four consecutive 1-1 draws, with two coming this year — in a World Cup qualifier in Panama City on March 28 and the opening match of the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup on July 8.

Six players on Panama’s roster play in Major League Soccer: Armando Cooper (Toronto), Anibal Godoy (San Jose), Fidel Escobar and Michael Murillo (Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston) and Román Torres (Seattle).