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United States' ability to perform under pressure both a blessing and a curse

Christian Pulisic and Jozy Altidore led a first-half surge from the U.S. that propelled them to a crucial win over Panama.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The United States has been flirting with danger for much of this World Cup qualifying cycle. But on Friday, with everything on the line, the Americans took a massive step toward securing qualification, as they obliterated Panama 4-0.

This backs-to-the-wall response is nothing new, of course. After dropping the first two games of the final-round Hexagonal, the U.S. hammered Honduras 6-0. In the semifinal round, a loss at Guatemala also imperiled the Americans' qualifying hopes, but the U.S. responded with a 4-0 victory in the return encounter a few days later. The U.S. then cruised from there with victories over St. Vincent & the Grenadines and Trinidad & Tobago.

On the one hand, it's an impressive trait to be able to respond with a dominating performance when the pressure is highest. But looked at another way, why does it take such circumstances to bring the best out of the U.S.?

Granted, summoning a performance like Friday's isn't like ordering a pizza, where you dial it up and get exactly what you want in the allotted number of minutes. It takes equal parts preparation and execution. The quality and form of the opponent, along with the varying conditions between home and road games, obviously play a part as well.

But the performance against Panama, as good as it was, does highlight just how inconsistent the U.S. has been this cycle. There have been times when the team has been dominant and others when it seemed to lack urgency, which explains why that word came up so often during the team's stay in Orlando. Certainly there has been a lack of continuity from game to game in terms of lineup choices, which no doubt also has had an impact.

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Manager Bruce Arena isn't looking at it that way, of course.

"We've had a great year despite what some of you people think," he said at his postgame news conference. "We've come a long way. We're well positioned to hopefully qualify for [the 2018 World Cup in] Russia."

He later added, "We're doing well. I know everyone thought we were going to qualify in six games in 2017. It doesn't happen that way. I think we're moving along well, we've advanced from sixth to third, we're positioned well with goal differential, and now we have to finish it off on Tuesday in Trinidad."

Arena has some numbers to back him up, the biggest being that the U.S. has lost but one game since he took over late last year. His overall record is 10-1-6. That record includes the Americans' run to the title at a watered-down Gold Cup, but in World Cup qualifying, Arena's record is 3-1-3. There has also been a 10-goal swing for the U.S. since the start of the year -- from minus-5 to plus-5 -- in terms of goal differential.

Other figures aren't as kind. Some predate Arena's arrival, but others don't. The home form, with losses to both Mexico and Costa Rica, has been spotty, to say the least. The Americans' road form has been subpar as well compared to previous cycles. If the U.S. fails to secure victory against T&T on Tuesday, it will mark the first time since the 1986 cycle that it failed to produce at least one victory outside the U.S. in its final round of qualifying. And even if the U.S. wins against T&T on Tuesday, the six road points in the Hex will be the fewest since the 2002 cycle, when the Americans secured just five points, and one victory.

That inconsistency is the biggest concern heading into Tuesday's match. The pressure on the Americans has been relieved to a degree, not only by the win against Panama but also by Costa Rica's dramatic tie against Honduras on Saturday. The results leave both Panama and Honduras on 10 points, two behind the U.S., and now a win on Tuesday will clinch third place outright.

Julie Stewart-Binks catches up with Bruce Arena after the United States' dominant win over Panama in Orlando.

Given the immense advantage the U.S. has in goal differential over its rivals -- it has a seven-goal cushion over Panama and a whopping 12-goal advantage over Honduras -- even a tie against the Soca Warriors ought to be enough.

So will the U.S. relax, or bear down even more in a bid to finish the job? Outwardly, the U.S. players seemed determined to not let any complacency creep into their collective transom. After Friday's match, there was universal recognition among the players -- from Michael Bradley to Christian Pulisic to Jozy Altidore -- that the job is not done. That isn't to say the U.S. shouldn't draw inspiration from Friday night. Clearly it should.

"We've got to enjoy this, use it for confidence and spirit, and make sure that come Tuesday, we're ready to finish the job," said Bradley, the U.S. captain.

It's been a habit of the U.S. during the Hex that whenever it seemed ready to put some distance between itself and its rivals, it has been dragged back into the mire with a lackluster performance. Clearly the U.S. team's psyche is in as good a place as it's been all year. Keeping lineup changes to a minimum -- health permitting -- should enable Arena to keep it that way. Then it's down to the players to get it done on the field.

The U.S. has a firm grip on qualification after Friday's impressive performance. Now it's time for them to make it secure, leave nothing to chance, and get a victory in Trinidad.

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

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