United States faces crucial test in World Cup qualifier vs. Panama
The United States' hopes of advancing to the World Cup will be on the line when the men's national team hosts Panama in its penultimate CONCACAF qualifier on Friday in Orlando, Florida.
Three teams will automatically qualify from the North America region, with the fourth-place team moving on to a playoff against the fifth-place team from the Asia region.
Panama, seeking its first World Cup appearance, enters Friday in third place with 10 points, with the U.S. one point back in fourth. Mexico has already qualified, and Costa Rica can qualify with at least a draw at home against Honduras on Friday.
The U.S. will automatically qualify for its eighth consecutive World Cup with victories in its next two games, provided Honduras doesn't win twice and make up an eight-goal deficit.
After failing to win either of its first two games in the final stage of CONCACAF qualifying (known as the Hexagonal) for the first time, the U.S. went unbeaten in its next four games before a home loss to Costa Rica and a draw against Honduras in September.
This is the first time since 2001 that the U.S. has gone without a victory in three consecutive qualifiers. It has not gone winless in four consecutive qualifiers since 1972, when the team failed to qualify for the competition two years later.
Only twice has a team qualified for the World Cup with nine or fewer points through the first eight games of the Hexagonal, and both times -- Trinidad & Tobago in 2006 and Mexico in 2014 -- those teams qualified by winning a playoff.
Although the U.S. cannot clinch a spot in the World Cup until the final day of the competition, it has an 83 percent chance of qualifying (including chances of winning a playoff), according to ESPN's Soccer Power Index. This will be the first time since the Hexagonal format was adopted in 1997 that the U.S. has not secured a spot before the competition ends.
The last time the U.S. qualified for the World Cup on the final day of competition was on Nov. 19, 1989, when Paul Caligiuri scored the game's only goal in the 30th minute of a victory at Trinidad & Tobago.
Not only has the U.S. lost four qualifiers in this cycle, matching the most in team history, but it has also lost two qualifiers at home. Before this cycle, the U.S. had lost only two of its previous 53 home qualifiers -- a run that began in 1980.
The only other time the U.S. dropped points in multiple home qualifiers was in qualifying for the World Cup in 1958, when it lost three games at home.
Friday's game will mark the fourth time the U.S. has hosted an international game in Orlando but the first time a World Cup qualifier will be played there. The U.S. lost two of those three games, both in 1993, and defeated Sweden in the most recent friendly in 1998.
The U.S. has won all three of its home World Cup qualifiers against Panama and has never lost in seven games between the teams in the competition, winning five of them. In fact, the U.S. has lost only once all time in 19 games against Panama -- a group-stage defeat in the Gold Cup in Tampa, Florida, in 2011.
Two other games between the teams in 2017 have ended 1-1 -- a World Cup qualifier in Panama in March and the Gold Cup opener in July.
Perhaps the most memorable game was when the U.S. ended Panama's hopes of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup on the final day. Tied 1-1 at halftime and needing a win to advance to the playoff, Panama took a 2-1 lead in the 83rd minute, only for the U.S. to score two goals in added time.
Clint Dempsey, who scored the U.S.'s only goal in the teams' previous World Cup qualifier in March, enters Friday with 57 international goals -- tied with Landon Donovan for the most in team history.
He has scored four goals in 11 games against Panama, including goals in three of the past four games, and his goal in the Gold Cup third-place game in 2015 was one of only two international goals he has scored as a substitute.
Three other U.S. players have scored goals against Panama, with Graham Zusi scoring twice and Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley each scoring once.
Altidore has scored nine goals -- one more than Dempsey -- in the Hexagonal, putting him first in team history and tied for third among all Hex players.
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