Alexi Lalas: “We do not need the proverbial mirror put in front of us to show us what we are or what we aren’t.” (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

By Michael Lewis Editor

NEW YORK — If the U.S. fails to reach its eighth consecutive World Cup, it will be a one big missed opportunity.

The Americans’ fate will be determined in the next few days, on whether they will reach Russia 2018, wind up in an intercontinental playoff between them and Australia or Syria or become spectators for the first time since the 1986 edition.

They take on Panama in Orlando Friday night before visiting Trinidad & Tobago Tuesday night.

If the U.S. falls short, “It would be a huge body blow.” FOX Soccer analyst Alexi Lalas said.

“I think that it will be a collective groan and a period of depression and introspection and/or possibly self-loathing for what we did or what we didn’t do,” Lalas added during last week’s FOX Sports’ unveiling of its World Cup coverage in Russia next year. “And that’s probably just normal reaction. In no way do I think that it is a good thing.

“I’ve heard that the U.S. needs a reset or needs a step back in order to go two steps forward. No, we know our problems. We know the challenges that we face. We know the mistakes that we have made. We live them each and every day. We understand them. We do get better. We do not need the proverbial mirror put in front of us to show us what we are or what we aren’t.

“It would be a huge body blow. We would go on and we ‘d come back and be certainly better. But we don’t need to go back in order or getting to that place by being better.”

Saying all of that, Lalas felt that the U.S. will prevail and by Tuesday night the players will be celebrating reaching Russia 2018.

“I think Bruce Arena and the team will get the job done over the next two games to get that third place and qualify,” he said. “And if and when that happens, I will be the first to congratulate them and praise and within reason because every team has done that since 1990. However, given the way it started out, they do deserve praise for righting the ship. And I do believe that’s going to happen.”

In case you might have forgotten or did not know, Lalas raised to fame during the 1994 World Cup, which the U.S. hosted. Sporting a long red hair with a beard and mustache, Lalas also stood out on the field, anchoring a U.S. defense along with Marcelo Balboa. The Americans reached the Round of 16, losing to eventual-champion Brazil.

“It changed my life,” he said. “The reason why I’m talking to you today was because of the summer of 1994 and the power of a World Cup. I lived that power and what it could do to an individual. It gave me opportunities on and off the field, the likes of which I didn’t dream of.

“It not only did it change my life, but I got to represent my country on the world stage. I don’t know if it’s cool anymore, but for me, that honor and that responsibility of representing my country was something that was worth [it]. You couldn’t put a price on it or anything like that. I don’t regret anything. If anything, that I could have again is that feeling of what it means to go out there and to represent of what I feel is the greatest country in the world.

“And to have that responsibility — and to take that responsibility seriously — which is why, for example, as great as ’94 was, in 1998, I look at is as I failed myself, my team and ultimately I failed my country because we weren’t successful and the way we weren’t successful was that we hurt our sport. I forever be saddened by that.”

As it turns out, Lalas did not play a minute at France ’98.