USA coach Bruce Arena says his team must show no fear, urging them to banish all doubts over their participation at 2018 World Cup Russia by defeating Panama in Orlando tomorrow night.
USA need six points to book their place at 2018 World Cup Russia
The United States head into the crucial qualifier knowing that gaining maximum points from both of their final two games - tomorrow's and Tuesday's against bottom-placed Trinidad & Tobago - will be enough to book their ticket to Russia.
Yet with Panama, who are one point ahead of Arena's side in third place and eyeing an historic first ever appearance at the World Cup finals, riding a crest of a wave built on a defensive doggedness which has seen them concede just five goals in their last nine outings, that task will be far from straightforward.
A win for Los Canaleros will be enough to seal a third place finish in this CONCACAF hexagonal and eradicate painful memories of four years ago when the US broke their hearts in the final game with a 3-2 win which saw arch-rivals Mexico sneak into the 2016 Brazil finals.
Arena, however, is confident his men can get the job done in Florida before sealing the deal against Trinidad & Tobago next week. “It's a huge game for both teams”, Arena told reporters on Thursday. “We will be well prepared to take on what will be a very good team. Panama have a defensive posture. They are very physical, not afraid to take fouls and will maintain that kind of aggression. So for us it would be good to get control and try and win the game from minute one”.
Come along and support us, says USA coach Arena
In the last three editions of the World Cup, the US has sailed through the qualifying round with ease. That hasn't been the case this time though, and that has fans facing two nail-biting final qualifying matches. “What do I say to fans who are anxious? Watch the game and support us. This why we play for these type of games”, Arena added. “It's a big game and there will big moments so that we means we need big performances. I've not put one second of thought about the next game in Trinidad. All the focus is on this game”.
US relying on Pulisic against Panama
With a dearth of attacking prowess in the ranks, Arena will look to the precocious Christian Pulisic to unlock the Panamanian defence. The Borussia Dortmund midfielder was given a hard time of it when the two teams playedout a 1-1 draw in Panama six months ago - Arena furious was furious at the treatment the teenager was subjected to.
For the US not to participate at the World Cup for the first time since 1986 would be a hammer-blow for North America and its soccer infrastructure which has grown immeasurably over the past decade. Arena said his squad was aware of what was stake if the US fails to deliver the goods in Orlando tomorrow: “I have not had to lecture the players in any way as to just how significant this game is”.