The United States Men's National Soccer Team (USMNT) may be 32 places higher than Panama in the FIFA world rankings, but that will count for nothing on Friday night. If Bruce Arena’s team loses, the U.S. will not qualify for next year’s World Cup in Russia.
Panama sits third in the qualifying group, one point and one place above USMNT, and in the final qualifying position, along with Costa Rica and first-place Mexico. The U.S. must beat Panama and then get either a draw or a win from their match against Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.
Lose, and it will be the first time the U.S. has not been at the World Cup finals since 1986 in Mexico. Since then, the USMNT has been ever present, reaching the quarterfinal stage in 2002 and the last 16 at the previous two tournaments.
So the pressure is high on Arena and his team, especially as Panama has no World Cup experience; victory would see Hernán Darío Gómez become the first man to take the country to the finals.
The game kicks off Friday night at 7:35 Eastern time and is being televised on ESPN2 and Univision Deportes. You can also live-stream the game through fuboTV.
Arena, meanwhile, needs look no further than former U.S. player and current Fox Sports analyst Alexi Lalas for his team talk. Last month Lalas tore into individual members of the team after losing to Costa Rica and drawing with Honduras.
Former Premier League goalkeeper Tim Howard was the first to be criticized by Lalas, who said, “The Belgium game ended three years ago; we need you to save the ball now.” Lalas was referring to the World Cup 2014 quarterfinal, eventually won 2-1 by Belgium, but only after Howard had made the most saves in a single match in World Cup history.
Speaking to Sports Illustrated this week, Howard hit back at Lalas. “He’s been blowing hot air for a long time,” Howard said. “He was an average player. He was a failed GM. And I think he gets the great thing about sports: Now you have an opportunity to get paid for your opinion when you’re finished playing, and it’s a good thing.”
Howard added: “Everyone has an opinion. And I think you have to deal with praise and criticism the same way. If you deal with praise the wrong way, it can be detrimental. This is my 20th year playing as a professional. I’ve gotten criticized a lot. But I’m still doing something right. If Alexi wants to speak to me personally, he’s always around. He can find me. The likelihood is he won’t speak to me personally. But that’s just who he is. He’s a character.”