U.S. coach Bruce Arena has emphasized the need to maximize the home field advantage as the United States Men’s National Team heads into a do-or-die World Cup qualifier against Panama in Orlando on Friday. The Yanks found themselves in the awkward position of playing to a mostly pro-Costa Rican crowd in last month’s 2-0 loss to the Ticos at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey.
A subsequent 1-1 draw on the road against Honduras has effectively left the USMNT’s World Cup hopes hanging in the balance.
“I’m going to make a plea to the people of Orlando,” said Arena, speaking to the Orlando Sentinel. “We need you out supporting the U.S. team.”
The U.S. currently sit fourth in the CONCACAF standings for qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. While they are currently outside of the bracket for automatic qualification, their destiny is still in their own hands. Back-to-back wins against Panama on Friday and away to Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday will see the Americans book their place in Russia.
Dropping points in either game could put the U.S. through the uncertainty and awkwardness of having to go into a playoff round. A loss on Friday could throw the chances of the U.S. qualifying into serious doubt.
To get the job done, Arena — who is in his second stint in charge after taking over for Jurgen Klinsmann last year — has called up an experienced roster. But while regular followers of the team will be reassured by the presence of recognized World Cup veterans like goalkeeper Tim Howard, midfielder Michael Bradley, and attackers Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey, this is a team that’s currently walking a precarious line.
Key defenders Geoff Cameron and DeAndre Yedlin are both nursing hamstring injuries while midfielder Kellyn Acosta, defender Matt Besler and Altidore are also contending with injuries.
Meanwhile, several of the injured players are also one yellow card away from suspension, as are Bradley, Dempsey, Paul Arriola, DeMarcus Beasley and Alejandro Bedoya. That means a yellow card could see the U.S. heading into Tuesday’s clash against T&T without any number of key players.
After storming back from the brink following Klinsmann’s dismissal, the U.S. went undefeated through most of 2017, winning last summer’s Gold Cup, and by all appearances, getting things back on track.
However, there have been criticisms of the team under Arena. While the decorated former Los Angeles Galaxy coach presided over the USMNT’s best-ever World Cup performance — a run to the quarterfinals in 2002 — he’s been accused of taking a reactive approach. There’s also a growing perception that the U.S. has failed to kick on from its impressive run in the 2016 World Cup, when it escaped the “Group of Death” and came within a hair of beating a stacked Belgium team in the knockout round.
This time around, the team’s fortune may hang on the performance of teenage sensation Christian Pulisic. The 19-year-old Pennsylvania native has become a sensation at German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund. After being handed his first cap by Klinsmann last year, Pulisic has quickly established himself as a key player in the U.S. attack.
With a majority of the players Arena has called up plying their trades in Major League Soccer, Pulisic is the standout player. However, as we’ve seen in his recent outings for the team, he is still learning how to rise to his best now that he’s become the player opposition defenses target and try to mark out of the game.
Under normal circumstances, a home match against Panama would be considered almost a walkover for the U.S. But the last time the two met back in March, the U.S. was held to a draw. Panama’s recent run of form sees them sitting third, one point above the U.S. Meanwhile, fifth-place Honduras are also breathing down the USMNT’s neck, tied on points with the U.S. but behind on goal differential.
The U.S. still has every chance to qualify and is expected to according to most pundits. However, the margin for error has all but disappeared. Criticisms about style and the long-term direction of the team must be put aside for a later day as the U.S. heads into what is arguably, the most important single game it’s played since the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Watch the USMNT take on Panama in World Cup qualifying Friday, October 6, at 7:30pm ET on ESPN2.