ORLANDO, Fla. – Accustomed to qualifying for the World Cup with games to spare, United States players realize another slip could cause them to miss next year’s tournament, a circumstance that has swelled angst among a growing fan base.
“We need three points bad,” star teenage midfielder Christian Pulisic said ahead of Friday’s qualifier against Panama. “We want to come out flying.”
Fourth in the North and Central American and Caribbean region with two games left, the Americans still can earn one of the region’s three automatic berths. They likely will need a win against the Panamanians followed by a victory or a draw Tuesday at Trinidad and Tobago.
“I haven’t dwelled on what went wrong or what we didn’t do,” defender Omar Gonzalez said Thursday before the Americans practiced in a warm rain. “We all understand what needs to be done, how we need to step out on the field, the focus that we need to have, the match intensity we need to have throughout the 90-minutes plus.”
The Americans have lost two home games in a World Cup cycle for the first time since 1957, 2-1 to Mexico last November and 2-0 to Costa Rica last month – their first defeat in 16 games since Bruce Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann as coach.
El Tri have clinched with 18 points, and Los Ticos have 15 and are on the verge of securing a berth. The U.S (nine) would vault over Panama (10) into third with a win. Honduras also has nine points going into its match at Costa Rica on Saturday, but the U.S. has a plus-one goal difference to the Catrachos’ minus-seven.
CONCACAF’s fourth-place nation goes to a playoff next month against Australia or Syria, tied 1-1 in their two-leg matchup heading into Tuesday’s game at Sydney.
“I think we have to be all more aggressive,” forward Jozy Altidore said. “It’s a matter of everybody just being a little more confident, taking a little bit more risk in the final third.”
Arena, who coached the national team from 1998-2006 before returning in November, brought in a new temporary assistant this week – Bob Bradley, who succeeded him as U.S. coach. Bradley became the first American manager in England’s Premier League and has been hired to lead Los Angeles’ Major League Soccer expansion team that starts play next year. He also is the father of U.S. captain Michael Bradley.
“I can’t think of a greater resource to have available for us,” Arena said.
Panama and the U.S. have played four consecutive 1-1 ties, including a March 28 qualifier at Panama City. Fouls of Pulisic prompted Arena to criticize Mexican referee Cesar Ramos and say “I think Panama thought there was a bull’s-eye on his back.”
“It’s to be expected in CONCACAF,” Pulisic said. “They’re going to come in hard.”
Heading into his first international match since turning 19 on Sept. 18, Pulisic has developed into the top American player since making his debut in Germany’s Bundesliga in January 2016.
“He plays at Borussia Dortmund in front of 80,000 people,” Altidore said. “He plays in Champions League against the biggest players, biggest teams in the world. He’s very relaxed. He’s fine.”
While the U.S. is seeking its eighth straight World Cup berth, Panama is seeking to reach soccer’s showcase for the first time. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, defender Felipe Baloy and forward Luis Tejada are all 36, part of a talented generation running out of time.
Four years ago the U.S. rested many regulars heading into its qualifying finale at Panama, and the hosts were about 90 seconds from winning and advancing to a playoff against New Zealand. Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time, allowing Mexico to climb over Panama into fourth. El Tri then beat New Zealand for a World Cup berth.
This time, it is the U.S. struggling to remain in contention.
“It’s a big occasion,” Arena said. “I don’t think I need to lecture our players on the significance of the game.”
NOTES: Roberto Garcia of Mexico will be referee. He was to have worked the March 29 match but got hurt. … Nine Americans have yellow cards and with another would be suspended for the Trinidad game: Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, DaMarcus Beasley, Alejandro Bedoya, Matt Besler, Bradley, Geoff Cameron, Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin. … The U.S. clinched with one game to spare in 1997, 2001 and 2009, with two left in 2013 and with three remaining in 2005.
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