USA understands significance of World Cup qualifier against Panama

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The last time the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup you could scarcely find soccer on American television, goalkeeper Tim Howard was 6, Bruce Arena was still coaching lacrosse part-time, Major League Soccer did not exist and virtually the entire current squad had not been born yet.

The policy was adopted in response to US women's national team midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who in a bid to show solidarity with then-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt for the anthem prior to a match against Thailand, and did the same several times with her club, the Seattle Reign.

The weight of the Panama match has not been lost on the players. Memorably, Zusi became a Mexican folk hero in the process, showered with gifts by a grateful El Tri fanbase.

Moving up the field, there is a deep generation gap that is still transitioning.

Preparing for today's crucial qualifier against Panama, the U.S. held a closed-doors scrimmage Wednesday against Orlando City's B team. We love you! We love you forever and ever!

For the United States to succeed, that resolute defense will need to be broken down by a team lacking creativity of the highest order. "We're in the United States", Arriola said.

Panama will also be viewing the game as a must-win.

But if there is anything from this qualifying cycle's Hexagonal round, it is that the gap within CONCACAF is shrinking.

If MLS wants to attain the dream of becoming an elite league, the USA needs must compete on the grandest stages.

They can't afford to allow that.

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With such high stakes, it promises to be intense.

Panama are once again edging close to qualification, this time for Russian Federation 2018. In the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings, Panama hold the third and final automatic qualifying spot, followed one point behind by the U.S. in the playoff spot (fourth would mean a home-and-away playoff in November against Australia or Syria) and fifth-place Honduras, tied with the United States on nine points but far behind on goal differential.

The USMNT faces a must-win game on Friday night as Panama comes stateside for a World Cup Qualifying match. Panama are miserly at the back - just five goals conceded from the last eight qualifiers illustrates a real sense of organization, cohesiveness and solidity. We understand even better now that we need to position ourselves well and be ready for turnovers.

Honduras (2-2-3) also remains in the running despite a awful goal differential, the first tiebreaker. Yet the window is closing for those pioneers, several of whom are expected to call time on their worldwide careers whenever this current campaign reaches its end. Arena said his squad was aware of what was stake if the USA 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". "Whenever you're in that situation I think it's a positive", Arena added. I've not put one second of thought about the next game in Trinidad. The national team must always be in the rudest of health.

Jozy Altidore continues to be a streaky player, while Bobby Wood and Jordan Morris still lack true big game experience.

It may be a daunting prospect for the players and coaches.

"They're an organized team, they get behind the ball quickly and they're good on the counter", US forward Jozy Altidore said.

"Right now we feel good, knowing a tough challenge on Friday is just another step to get to the World Cup", said Arroyo.

For the USA 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.

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