The United States face their most important World Cup qualifying game in nearly 30 years on Friday when they take on a Panama side thirsting for revenge and chasing a historic first ever appearance at the finals.
Twenty-eight years ago, the Americans defeated Trinidad and Tobago 1-0 to book their place at the 1990 World Cup — the country’s first appearance at football’s biggest tournament since 1950.
Since then, the US have qualified for every edition of the World Cup, a record of achievement that reflects the steady development of the world’s most popular sport in a country which for so long remained impervious to its charms.
Yet American hopes of appearing at an eighth consecutive World Cup at next year’s finals in Russia are in jeopardy as Bruce Arena’s side prepare to face Panama in Orlando on Friday.
A stuttering campaign in the six-team final round of qualifying for North America, Central America and the Caribbean (Concacaf) has left the United States in fourth place with two games remaining, outside the top three automatic qualifying places.
Panama, who have never qualified for the World Cup, sit in third place, one point ahead of the United States.
It means that Arena’s side must take maximum points from Friday’s game to keep their qualification destiny in their own hands.
Victory, followed by an away win against Trinidad & Tobago next Tuesday, would guarantee automatic qualification for the Americans and a ticket to Russia.
Any other result in Orlando, and the picture becomes complicated, with a fourth-placed finish raising the possibility of a two-leg playoff against either Syria or Australia.
ARENA’S MESSAGE: ‘WIN’
Panama, who drew 1-1 with the US in Panama City in March, will likely qualify for Russia if they win in Florida on Friday.
A draw would also work in Panama’s favour, leaving them needing only to beat Costa Rica — who by that stage may already have qualified — next Tuesday to book a first ever place at the World Cup.
Friday’s game also gives Panama a golden opportunity to avenge their agonising 2013 qualifying loss to the United States.
Four years ago, Panama needed only to beat the US at home to qualify for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
But two US goals in stoppage time turned what looked like being a 2-1 Panamanian win into a 3-2 American victory to leave the hosts devastated.
US coach Arena acknowledged the importance of Friday’s game, but reiterated that his players still have their qualification destiny in their own hands.
“This is an important game, no question about it. And I think we’ll have a team ready to play,” Arena told reporters, adding that he had given a straightforward message to his players.
“Win the game,” he said. “That’s the message – win the game.”
“We have no excuses. We’re not depending on other teams to win games to help us. We’re depending on ourselves. Whenever you’re in that situation I think it’s a positive,” Arena added.
Arena, who returned as US coach last November following the sacking of Jurgen Klinsmann after qualifying losses to Mexico and Costa Rica, said he expects Panama to take a cagey approach to Friday’s game.
“I imagine they’ll be in a defensive posture,” Arena said. “They’ve had a good qualifying campaign to date…They’re a team in third place — so they’re ahead of us. So we’ll give them a lot of respect.”
Veteran defensive midfielder Graham Zusi meanwhile voiced confidence that the US would get the result they needed.
“I think you’ve seen this team respond to pressure well in the past,” he told reporers. “We’ve been in this situation before and it always seems like we come together and take care of the job.
“It’s certainly a big game. But we’re in a position where we want to be. Our destiny is in our own hands.”
In other Concacaf games on Friday, already-qualified Mexico face Trinidad & Tobago at home.
Second-placed Costa Rica meanwhile can clinch their qualification with at least a draw at home to fifth-placed Honduras.