There’s no getting around the enormity of the United States-Panama World Cup qualifier Friday night.
“If you thought Costa Rica was a big game, this is probably the biggest game in a long time,” Union captain Alejandro Bedoya said, referring to the last time he left Philadelphia to suit up for the national team.
But for all the hype and panic among fans and critics, any discussion of the U.S.’ predicament should include a look at the history books. Bruce Arena has been in a situation very much like the current one as the national team’s head coach.
In 2001, Arena’s team had its back against the wall after failing to beat Honduras and Costa Rica in a two-game September stretch that included a home loss.
The final games in October required winning at home, then going on the road to Trinidad & Tobago.
All of those statements apply in the present, too, right down to Tuesday’s qualifying finale at Trinidad.
Arena’s team got the job done back then. A squad that included Union sporting director Earnie Stewart and a 19-year-old Landon Donovan edged Jamaica, 2-1, in Foxborough, Mass., thanks to goals early and late from Joe-Max Moore.
That contest drew extra attention for being the first national team game after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. It wasn’t televised live because ABC preempted it to report on U.S. military attacks in Afghanistan.
The U.S. ended up qualifying for the 2002 World Cup that day, thanks to surprising results elsewhere. And when the Americans got to South Korea, they embarked on a historic run to the quarterfinals.
Sixteen years later, a new era of Americans faces a must-win game at a politically fraught time.
(Though with no worries about television commitments. ESPN2 and Univision will air the game live. Kickoff is set for just after 7:30 p.m.)
Will the U.S. get the job done? A key difference between now and then could prove vital. In 2001, Arena’s team lost twice in September: at home to Honduras and at Costa Rica. This year, the team snatched a 1-1 tie at Honduras after losing at home to the Ticos.
“Everybody left the last camp with a sour taste, but we knew how important that goal was that we got against Honduras,” Bedoya said.
Another difference: The fourth-place Americans (2-3-3, 9 points) won’t be able to qualify for Russia on Friday. They’ll be able only to jump over third-place Panama (2-2-4, 10 points) with a win. But if that happens and fifth-place Honduras loses at second-place Costa Rica — which would book its World Cup ticket to Russia with a win — the U.S. would be all but guaranteed to finish no worse than fourth.
That would put the U.S. in a home-and-away playoff with the winner of an Asian playoff this month between Syria and Australia. The top three teams get the region’s automatic berths.
Syria and Australia tied, 1-1, in the first game of the series on Friday. It was Syria’s home leg, but because of the security situation there, it was played in Malaysia. Australia’s home leg is Tuesday in Sydney (4:55 a.m. ET, WatchESPN.com).
A U.S.-Syria series would bring headaches on and off the field. It won’t be necessary if the Americans sweep the two games in front of them.
“We have the team to do more than what it takes to get to the World Cup,” Bedoya said.
Panama will likely try to make Friday’s game a mud fight in an effort to hold on to third place. Los Canaleros are notorious for playing ugly soccer. Their defenders have a reputation for hacking, and their attackers have a reputation for flopping.
Bedoya put up with it in the U.S.’ two previous meetings with Panama this year, a World Cup qualifier at Panama and a group stage game at the Gold Cup. Both were 1-1 ties.
He expects a similar style of contest in Round 3.
“I would even go so far as to say that maybe we can’t be so naive — we’ve got to be a little bit bully-ish,” he said. “We know what’s in front of us, and we’ve just got to be able to take it with both hands and get a hold of the game. We’re playing at home, so there’s no excuse.”
United States vs. Panama
Friday, 7:35 p.m. at Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
All-time series: United States 12 wins, Panama 1 win, 6 ties
In World Cup qualifying: United States 5 wins, Panama 0 wins, 2 ties
Qualifiers in the U.S.: United States 3 wins, Panama 0 wins, 0 ties
Panama players to watch
Midfielder Gabriel Gómez: Still going strong at age 33, the former Union player could make his 135th appearance for the national team in this game. He scored Panama's goal in its home World Cup qualifier against the U.S. this year.
Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo: He also knows the U.S. team well. In addition to starting in the World Cup qualifier at Panama, he played for the Los Angeles Galaxy from 2013 to 2015.
Defender Román Torres: The Seattle Sounders centerback didn't play against the Union on Sunday due to a knee injury, but that hasn't kept him away from the national team. If he plays for Panama, he could duel with Sounders teammate Clint Dempsey.
CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings and schedule
1. Mexico (5-3-0, 18 points, +8 goal difference)
2. Costa Rica (4-1-3, 15 points, +7)
3. Panama (2-2-4, 10 points, +2)
4. United States (2-3-3, 9 points +1)
5. Honduras (2-3-3, 9 points, -7)
6. Trinidad & Tobago (1-7-0, 3 points, -11)
7:35 p.m.: United States vs. Panama (ESPN2, Univision, Univision Deportes)
9:30 p.m.: Mexico vs. Trinidad & Tobago (Fox Sports 1 in English, Univision and Univision Deportes in Spanish)
6 p.m.: Costa Rica vs. Honduras (English commentary on beIN Sports' Spanish channel, Spanish commentary on Universo; the game was originally scheduled for 10 p.m. Friday, but was moved back a day due to the impact of Tropical Storm Nate)
8 p.m.: Trinidad & Tobago vs. United States (beIN Sports in English, Universo in Spanish)
8 p.m.: Honduras vs. Mexico (beIN Sports Connect in English, Telemundo in Spanish)
8 p.m.: Panama vs. Costa Rica (beIN Sports Connect in English, TelemundoDeportes.com in Spanish)