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U.S. still imperfect but back in World Cup contention after productive week

PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The final round of World Cup qualifying has been full of blemishes -- big and small -- for the U.S. men's national team. There have been dropped points at home and a humbling defeat on the road, while even Tuesday's 1-1 tie with Panama left a sense that more could have been accomplished.

But the last six days have revealed an overarching truth: The U.S. has played its way back into World Cup qualifying contention by securing four points in two matches, thus releasing the pressure that had been building ever since it suffered that 4-0 road defeat to Costa Rica last November.

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Better yet, the Americans took points off Honduras and Panama, teams it will likely have to beat to earn an automatic qualifying spot. A further bonus came with both of those nations failing to win at all over this international break, all of which means that, through four rounds, the U.S. lies fourth in the Hexagonal standings.

And that was really the goal for the U.S. over the past week: Take care of business at home against Honduras, make Panama bleed points on the road and move off the bottom of the table. Job done.

"Six points would have been great, but four points is a must," said goalkeeper Tim Howard. "We have three home games left. If we win all of those without taking another point [on the road] we'll have 13. In past years that should get you to a World Cup. We obviously plan on taking some points [away from home]. A win against Trinidad gets you seven going into Mexico. It's not like a must-win, but you want to qualify for the World Cup, you have to beat Trinidad at home. That's kind of how we feel."

Actually, it remains to be seen if 13 will be enough -- it wasn't in 2010 for example when Costa Rica won 16 but only made the playoffs -- but Howard's point is still well taken. All the Americans should be thinking about right now is third place; any thought of bragging rights about being top dog in CONCACAF should be pushed to the side.

If the U.S. manages to catch Mexico or Costa Rica, great. But it's really about getting above Panama, Honduras and Trinidad and Tobago, then staying there. And if that sounds like lowered expectations, well, it is. But with Mexico cruising along with 10 points it's also the reality of the situation, 

That is why, to a man, the U.S. felt like it got what it needed out of the last two matches. In the process, it recaptured a bit of what made the team so formidable in World Cup qualifying campaigns of the past.

"We wanted to creep up the table, and I think we did that these last 10 days," said defender Omar Gonzalez. "We're sitting in fourth right now and I think we can be very happy with these last two games; the 6-0 win and the tie here on the road. We showed a lot more spirit, we showed a lot more camaraderie. We showed the team spirit that we haven't showed in a long time. I think we can build off this."

A draw in Panama completed a solid week of work for the United States on the road to Russia.

It's also important to remember just how many obstacles the U.S had to overcome in getting those four points. They had to deal with an unusual amount of injuries, with six starters rendered unavailable at one time or another and that forced coach Bruce Arena into all kinds of potential lineup variations.

Over the last two games, the back line was held together by little more than bubble gum, bailing wire and Gonzalez, who indicated that the four defenders who took the field on Tuesday -- Jorge Villafana, Tim Ream and Graham Zusi were alongside the Pachuca man -- had one training session to become acquainted with one another.

"We made a lot of progress and somehow managed to get through an unusual amount of injuries and those type of things," said Arena. "I give our players a lot of credit."

Along the way, Arena also obtained some valuable data points. Villafana looks like a solid contributor at left-back and, with four goals in two games, Clint Dempsey is back to his goal scoring best.

Meanwhile, Christian Pulisic's progress over the past four months at Borussia Dortmund translated seamlessly to World Cup qualifying even when he had, as Arena put it, "a bull's-eye on his back" in terms of physical play from opponents.

To be clear, the U.S. still has some questions that need to be answered. The Panama match did little to quell the disquieting notion that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones are a mismatch in the center of midfield. If one of them has to sit deep, how best should Arena find that elusive  balance between attack and defense, while accommodating a two-striker system that seems to be in the United States' DNA?

And then there was also this thought-provoking nugget from Arena's roundtable with reporters on Monday.

"We're fortunate in that we have a group of guys who want to be here," he said. "There might be one or two guys that don't, but for the most part these guys want to be here."

It suggests that the commitment issues, which dogged the team last year and that bubbled to the surface over the winter, haven't been completely solved.

But those tasks will be left for Arena to contemplate over the next two months before June qualifiers at home to Trinidad and Tobago and in Mexico. For now, the U.S. players can head back to their club teams content with the knowledge that the national team is heading back in the right direction again.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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