Michael Bradley: “Games don’t get much bigger than this. There’s no margin for error. And we understand that.” (Andy Mead/YCJ)
ORLANDO — Needing three points to keep their World Cup hopes alive for Russia next year, the United States realizes that it will face a rival that is just as hungry to book a spot in the competition.
Third-place Panama (2-2-4, 10 points), which has never qualified for the World Cup, visits the fourth-place U.S. (2-3-3, 9) at Orlando City Stadium Friday at 7:30 p.m. (ESPN2).
The U.S., which trails Los Canaleros by a point in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, needs a win so it can be in a position to clinch at berth in Russia with another victory at Trinidad & Tobago Tuesday night. The top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup.
A tie won’t eliminate the Americans from contention. And they still could qualify with a loss, by finishing fourth and winning a two-leg intercontinental playoff with either Syria or Australia next month.
“Games don’t get much bigger than this,” U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. “There’s no margin for error. And we understand that.”
Added midfielder Christian Pulisic: “We need three points bad.”
So do the Central Americans, who have been riding a golden generation of players through this World Cup cycle. But because 13 Panamanians are 29-years-old or older, this could be their last shot at World Cup glory.
That was not lost on Bradley.
“They’re very motivated,” Bradley said. “They have a group of players that have been together for a long time.”
The U.S. is motivated as well, trying to book a spot in its eighth consecutive World Cup, dating back to Italia ’90.
“We have a group of players that have been in these games since March,” U.S. head coach Bruce Arena said. “Every game has been do or die for us. This is no different, but obviously as you get to the end, there’s more significance to it.”
The key is to get off to a good start. Teams that have won in the Hex and have scored the first goal have recorded a 16-0 mark.
“We want to come out flying at the beginning,” Pulisic said. “If we can get an early goal, it would be perfect.”
Arena hasn’t left anything to chance. Bob Bradley, who directed the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup and was an assistant to Arena at D.C. United and the 1996 Olympic team, has joined the coaching staff for this match. Bradley is the father of Michael.
“I can’t think of a greater resource to have available,” Arena said.