Gut-check time arrives for U.S. men’s soccer team and its teetering World Cup qualifying hopes – Orange County Register

Courtesy U.S. Soccer

To keep the U.S. World Cup hopes firmly in their own hands, the fourth-place Americans must beat a third-place Panamanian team just over a week from now (Oct. 6 at 4 p.m. on ESPN2 and UniMas). It has never lost a qualifier to Panama in seven games dating to 2004.

Then the U.S. will finish out the Hexagonal four days later against last-place Trinidad & Tobago (Oct. 10 at 4 p.m. on ESPN), a nation with just one win and seven losses in the final round of qualifying.

Get a combination of the right results in those two games starting with a win over Panama and a draw against T&T may be enough, although a win and three points is obviously better — and the U.S. is all but certain to finish third and avoid a home-and-away playoff series the fourth-place nation must endure. There is a lengthy list of possible permutations should results go differently, but the first order of business is to dispose of Panama in Orlando, Fla.

“I know it looks like were in a difficult situation, but we’re a point out of third place and we’re playing the team that’s ahead of us at home, so that’s a real positive,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “If we’re able to beat Panama, we head into the last game with a very good chance of finishing third in the group. I like our chances, and at the end of the day it’s up to us.”

While the Panama game looms as perhaps the most crucial U.S. World Cup qualifier since the Americans made it to the 1990 World Cup tournament for the first time in 40 years, the task should be by no means daunting. And frankly, if the U.S. doesn’t succeed it doesn’t deserve to go to Russia anyway.

Of course, there’s a catch (there always is).

The U.S. has played four successive 1-1 draws against Panama, including the last qualifier between the two nations, meaning the U.S. hasn’t beaten the Central Americans in four years.

Recent injuries to attacking players including Jozy Altidore, Kellyn Acosta and Jordan Morris — who may be out for the season with a hamstring injury — are another issue.

That will mean a greater reliance on Arena’s tried-and-true attacking options, which coming into the game against Panama likely means a reliance on 34-year-old Clint Dempsey and 19-year-old Borussia Dortmund striker Christian Pulisic, who is being linked with moves to Real Madrid, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool.

Pulisic played only a cameo role for Dortmund after coming on as a second-half sub in the German club’s UEFA…

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