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 By Ian Darke

United States have one foot in Russia after a fraught qualifying campaign

With Panama in the rear-view, Herculez Gomez and Kasey Keller look ahead to the final U.S. qualifier at Trinidad & Tobago.
Ian Darke and Taylor Twellman praise the U.S. for their performance against Panama but caution there's still work to be done.
Relive Christian Pulisic's goal, assist and all of his touches in between from the United States' 4-0 win over Panama.
Herculez Gomez and Kasey Keller weigh in on the best ways to protect star players like Christian Pulisic.

Ronald Reagan was president and the movie "Top Gun" was breaking box office records the last time the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup in 1986.

Back then, outside a tiny minority of soccer diehards, nobody in America even cared; the tournament might have been held on Mars, for all most people knew. After all, the list of failures to qualify dated back to 1950, the year of a fabled 1-0 win over England in Belo Horizonte.

How times change: The U.S. has been at every World Cup since 1990 and a growing army of fans not only care, but expect to see the Americans on the big stage. Moreover, a generation has grown up watching live action from the top European Leagues, while Major League Soccer has gained increasing traction.

In 2014, TV ratings went through the roof and, as we covered the team in Brazil, stories reached us of business people in Wall Street timing their lunch break to watch the Americans play and new converts were not disappointed.

Jurgen Klinsmann's team won hearts and minds in advancing from a mighty tough group that also featured comprising Germany, Portugal and Ghana. The U.S. even found itself adopted as lovable underdogs by neutrals until its campaign ended in an extra-time defeat to Belgium in the Round of 16, despite the heroics of goalkeeper Tim Howard.

It was a run that did much to spread word that the U.S. was not some kind of joke team. To emphasise that point, Klinsmann engineered away friendly wins at Italy, Germany and Netherlands during his tenure.

But attempts to qualify for Russia next year have been beset by problems.

Klinsmann lost his job after defeats to Mexico and Costa Rica in the first two games of the "Hex" -- the final, six-team round that decides the three automatic qualifiers from the CONCACAF region. Back came Arena, the grizzled MLS coach who took the U.S. to the quarterfinals in 2002.

He repaired the damage until a costly 2-0 home defeat in September to the clever Costa Ricans, who took their chances and ruthlessly squeezed America's teenage talent Christian Pulisic out of the game.

Bruce Arena, left, and Christian Pulisic, right, have been pivotal in the U.S. run to the brink of World Cup qualification.

Suddenly the U.S. was outside the prized top-three places and staring at an unthinkable failure to make the World Cup. Such a failure would cost millions of dollars, as well as the loss of kudos and the damage done to the image of the sport across the nation.

But with the pressure on and amid tangible tension, Pulisic ripped a hitherto miserly Panama defense to shreds during a 4-0 win in Orlando on Friday.

The 19-year-old Dortmund attacker from the chocolate bar town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, insists upon his name being pronounced the American way: "Poo-liss-ick." Mature beyond his years, he wears the No. 10 shirt of former poster boy Landon Donovan and has emerged as the team's headline act.

Now one more victory, away to bottom-of-the-table Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday, will take Arena's team to Russia at the end of this white-knuckle ride. Indeed, even a draw should be enough, such is the U.S.' goal-difference advantage over Panama and Honduras. But might there be a sting in the tail?

The American defense, which has had 19 changes in the Hex so far, does not inspire confidence and the T&T team can play with freedom with nothing but pride on the line. What's more, it created several good chances against the U.S. earlier in the campaign, despite a 2-0 loss.

Away games in CONCACAF are tough for everyone given the usual heat, imperfect surfaces and raucous intimidating crowds. So even against what is likely to be an experimental lineup, this is no formality for the Americans, who have taken just three points from four previous road qualifiers.

Yet having grasped a lifeline in Orlando and with the attacking trio of Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood in top form, it will be a shock if the U.S. fails to clinch a spot at an eighth successive World Cup.

Perhaps if those three fail to get the job done, 34-year-old Clint Dempsey can come off the bench to get the goal that would put him out on his own as the country's all-time record scorer. After that, he can go about trying join Pele, as well as Germans Uwe Seeler and Miroslav Klose, as the only players to score at four World Cups.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.

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