The U.S. Men’s National Team understands what Friday’s game means. Various players reiterated the same message all week. The match against Panama isn’t just any other game on the road to World Cup qualifying. It’s a do-or-die test, one which could push the U.S. one step closer to Russia or one step closer towards something much, much worse.
It’s simple, really. A USMNT win would all but lock up a spot in Russia. A tie keeps a slim hope for automatic qualification alive heading into the final match of the Hexagonal. A loss? Utter chaos and, at best, a chance at a playoff berth against Australia or Syria.
“It’s not as normal as possible. If that was the case, no one would be here,” Arena said. “I think it’s a big occasion. I don’t think I need to lecture our players on the significance of the game. I think they understand that. We have a group of players who have been in these games, maybe you people haven’t realized it, since March, every game has been do-or-die for us. This is no different, but as you get to the end of the Hex there’s more significance in it.”
“To be honest, I don’t think I’ve had a year where the stakes weren’t high since I started,” added Jozy Altidore. “I want to say that, looking back, every game is a big game, but the next game is always the biggest game. That’s evident now. Being in World Cup qualifying and where we are right now, I think everyone is prepared for it.”
Friday’s match is a defining moment in the U.S. cycle, and it also could very well be a defining moment in American soccer. As the game continues to grow throughout the country, missing out on the World Cup would be catastrophic for a team still pushing towards the elite on the world stage.
The good news? The USMNT is likely more talented than Panama. Players like Christian Pulisic, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore are in good form. Veterans like Tim Howard, Omar Gonzalez and Geoff Cameron are healthy and ready to contribute. There are tactical options and decisions to make, but the U.S., John Brooks aside, generally has the pieces in place.
“From the get-go in this Hex, we’ve been in a situation where our backs were against the wall,” Bradley said. “We’ve been in games where we need to win, where we need points, and there’s been a real sense of urgency. Obviously, you get to the end our margin for error is virtually gone and we all understand what’s at stake. We’re excited by the opportunity to have it all on the line. As athletes, as competitors, the chance to play and represent our country and play in the biggest games, there’s nothing better.”
On the other side, Panama has virtually the same attitude with the added motivator of revenge. Los Canaleros have been a contender in CONCACAF in recent years, but the nation has never experienced a World Cup. Panama was oh so close last cycle before Graham Zusi’s big moment provided one of the most shocking stories in CONCACAF history.
Still, a group of players that make up a golden generation remain in the fold. There are defenders like Roman Torres and Felipe Baloy alongside midfield regulars like Armando Cooper and Anibal Godoy. Up top, there are players like the ageless Blas Perez and Luis Tejada leading the charge with longtime goalkeeper Jaime Penedo in net. It’s a group of players that has tasted heartbreak before and has one last chance to reach the World Cup.
“You look at some of the experiences they had as a group, some of the success they’ve had, some of the moments where they’ve come close but not quite gotten where they wanted to,” Bradley said. “I think it all comes together in a way where they realize this may be their last chance as a group in terms of these players to do something special and qualify for a World Cup.
“Certainly from our standpoint, we expect a very motivated team, a group of guys that will come in here and be ready to give everything to keep their dream of going to a World Cup alive.”
That dream will be felt on both sides on Friday as Orlando will play host to a match that could very well be a World Cup eliminator. The winner would be all but assured of a spot. The loser would have to sweat it out in a big way in the days and weeks to follow.
Knowing that, the U.S. has no intentions of dropping points. The mood has been confident all week long, but it will take more than confidence to book a spot in Russia.
“Until your place is secured there’s always pressure,” Altidore said. “There’s pressure for them, pressure for everybody. It’s part of being pro. It’s nothing new.”
“We’ll have a group of guys who are ready to go for it in a fearless way and make sure that we control every little thing we could control in terms of our attitude and mentality,” Bradley added. “In the end, we’re going to go for it, and let the chips fall where they may. “