ORLANDO, Fla. — U.S. men’s national team fans are a nervous lot even in the best of times, and the angst meter is off the scale heading into Friday’s giant World Cup qualifier here against Panama (7:35 p.m. ET, ESPN2, Univision).
And so, with the U.S. needing a victory to have any positive feelings about reaching Russia next summer, U.S. coach Bruce Arena was asked on Thursday what he would say to reassure fans who have a sick feeling in their stomach that the U.S. could miss its first men’s World Cup since 1986.
“Watch the game and support us,” Arena said with his usual air of confidence. “I think this is why we play and coach in these types of games. This is what high-level athletes and coaches are supposed to be all about. We’re playing in a big game. It means there’s going to be big moments, and we need to have big performances. And I believe we’re prepared to do that.”
Arena pointed out that Panama had conceded only five goals in eight Hexagonal games, and for the U.S. to prevail it will have to be aggressive against a Panamanian defense that was physical—bordering on thuggish—in a 1-1 qualifying tie in Panama City in March. Their main target in that game was U.S. teenager Christian Pulisic, who was repeatedly kicked and shoved and got CONCACAF’d by a referee who refused to protect players and issue yellow cards that night.
“I mean, it’s to be expected,” Pulisic said on Thursday about Panama’s physical play. “In CONCACAF, these teams aren’t going to give it to us easy. So we’ve got to be ready for that. They’re going to come in hard. They’re going to be the same tomorrow, I’m sure. And we just have to be ready to respond.”
The U.S. scored just one goal in two qualifiers last month, a crushing 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica and a 1-1 tie in Honduras in which Bobby Wood bundled home a late (and crucial) equalizer in the dying minutes. In speaking with U.S. players this week, it’s clear that the coaching staff is preaching the importance of getting off to a fast start and preferably bagging an early goal, much like the one against Honduras in March that opened the floodgates in a 6-0 victory.
“We want to come out flying at the beginning,” said Pulisic. “We definitely want to get that early goal. We want to start really strong.”
Teammate Jozy Altidore was clear in what he wants to see improve in the U.S. attack.
“We have to be more aggressive,” he said. “If you look at the attacking players we have, everyone has been successful with their club teams. I think it’s a matter of just being more aggressive, being more confident. Bobby [Wood] can score goals. I can score goals. Christian can score goals. Paul [Arriola]. Juan [Agudelo]. Clint [Dempsey]. It’s a matter of everybody just being a bit more confident taking a little bit more risk in the final third.”
Of the two teams, the only one that can qualify for the World Cup on Friday night is Panama (which would do so with a victory and a Honduras loss or tie). If that were to happen, it would mean the U.S. would only be able to get to Russia by qualifying for an two-leg intercontinental playoff in November with Australia or Syria—and nobody in the U.S. camp wants to have to do that.
“We know it’s a huge game for both teams,” Arena said. “We’ve been in camp here since Sunday. I think our team will be well-prepared and ready to play against a very good team from Panama. So we’ll look forward to the match. We’re pleased to be in Orlando. It’s a great venue, a great community to support the U.S. team. So it has all the makings of a great game.”
By the end of it, we’ll know where the U.S. fan angst meter stands—and whether missing the World Cup will remain a real possibility.
• Former U.S. and current LAFC coach Bob Bradley, a longtime Arena friend who was Arena’s assistant with D.C. United, the University of Virginia and the 1996 U.S. Olympic team, has joined the team ahead of the Panama game.
“Bob came in [Wednesday],” Arena said. “I haven’t given him a role. Bob’s being Bob. I can’t think of a greater resource to have available for us to take any of the comments he may add and not to have a better friend or more supportive person in U.S. soccer than that. We’re really pleased to have Bob with us for a couple days to help us prepare for this game … He’s also the father of one of our players [captain Michael Bradley]. That’s a side note to all this.”
Arena said Bradley would not stay with the team for the game at Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.
• Arena said he had not decided yet if he will continue to platoon his goalkeepers Tim Howard and Brad Guzan, as he has done on the last four Hex matchdays.
“I will be honest with you: I haven’t spent one second in preparation for the second game [in Trinidad and Tobago],” he said. “All the focus has been on Panama. I cannot tell you one thing we would do in our second game in this swing.”
• Fabian Johnson was one of the surprise omissions on Arena's roster for this fixture window, but the manager assured it doesn't carry any big-picture implications for his role on the national team down the line.
"We just put together a roster that we thought gave us the best chance to succeed in these two games," Arena said. "I think Fabian is a very good player. If we continue to move forward with the national team, I would suspect that he's going to be in camps down the road."