By Michael Lewis Editor

Just how important is it for a team to score first?

Well, we’ve heard it for years how vital it is for teams.

In the World Cup, sides that score first wind up winning something like 80 percent of the time.

The benefits of taking the lead are pretty, pretty, pretty obvious (with all apologies to Larry David, so I’ll have to curb my enthusiasm):

* You take the lead.

* You can dictate the game more and use a counterattack to add to your lead.

* And as the game wears on, you make the opposition anxious, knowing that it must score twice if it needs to win.

Of course, it works the other way if you are chasing the game.

Then I came up with this mind-bending statistic:

In 16 games in the CONCACAF Hexagonal that resulted in a win/loss and not a draw, teams that found the net first have forged a 16-0 mark.

That’s right, 16-0.

In case you were wondering, there have been eight draws, which includes a pair of scoreless ties.

That is why the U.S. must score first against Panama if it wants to win and keep its World Cup hopes alive.

Allowing Los Canaleros to score first in Orlando, Fla. Friday would be playing with fire. The U.S., which is in fourth place in the Hex (good enough for a playoff game from an Asian runner-up team, either Syria or Australia), cannot afford a loss in either of the two games. The Americans need a minimum of four points, although six will but guarantee a third-place finish and an automatic berth to Russia 2018 (Honduras would have to win twice and make up a huge goal differential (plus one to minus seven), which is highly unlikely).

Now I’m not saying it is impossible not to overcome a 1-0 deficit. After all, it has been done plenty of times before — in qualifying and the World Cup.

But the USA would make life so much easier for itself if it scores the first goal in its penultimate Hex game at Orlando City Stadium Friday night.

And ditto against Trinidad & Tobago in Couva Oct. 10.