The turnaround between the September and October dates in the Final Round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup is the tightest of the entire 10-game set. Concluding with the critical 1-1 draw on Sept. 5 in Honduras, the U.S. MNT ensured control its own destiny going into October’s last two matches.
With the high-stakes games coming quickly, MNT head coach Bruce Arena and staff dove straight into their preparations for USA-Panama, presented by Volpi Foods, on Oct. 6 in Orlando, and the final match of the Hex on Oct. 10 at Trinidad & Tobago.
“As we enter these last two games, our view is that we have to get at least four points and likely six points in order to qualify as the third team in CONCACAF,” Arena said in a recent interview.
Given the divergent positions of the opponents in the Hex table, those teams offer “differing mentalities” according to Arena. As he says, results in both matches will likely be needed in order for the MNT to qualify, but winning the first game against Panama is clearly the biggest piece to the puzzle and as such, Arena is expecting the visitors will be difficult to break down.
“Panama and ourselves are fighting for the third and fourth position in the group,” he said. “They’re a point ahead of us, so when we play them we anticipate they’re going to have a really defensive look to themselves and look to catch us on the break.”
Having played each other 10 times since 2011, the U.S. and Panama are quite familiar by this point. With Arena at the helm, the sides have met twice more this year, playing to 1-1 draws in qualifying on March 28 in Panama and the opening match of the Gold Cup on July 8 in Nashville. Aside from the score line, the key aspect in both matches was the brute nature of the way Los Canaleros have played, out-fouling the U.S. 29-15 during the course of the two encounters.
Arena fully expects a similar approach next month in Orlando, making the performance of the referee all the more significant. In the meantime, the U.S. will be prepared for it.
“They’re a strong team physically. I think they’ll be very aggressive coming at us – fouling, looking to get out on the break and trying to create some chances off restarts. They’ll be tough to play against. We have to have a good mentality in that game, be very aggressive going forward, try to get a goal and make Panama chase the game.”
Should the mission of taking three points against Panama be accomplished, the U.S. will go to Trinidad knowing that a win will punch the ticket to Russia while a draw could still get the team there depending on the results of Panama and Honduras on the final matchday.
And while the Soca Warriors have accepted their fate of missing the World Cup, there will still be plenty of pride on the line for the home side, who will look to play spoiler to a U.S. team that dealt them the fatal blow on the final day of qualifying for the 1990 World Cup in Port of Spain.
In the here and now, Arena and the MNT will remember well the first meeting of the current Hex back in June. On that day just outside of Denver, T&T goalkeeper Jan-Michael Williams put on an impressive display to keep the Soca Warriors in the match before Christian Pulisic’s second-half brace delivered the MNT a 2-0 victory.
Beyond that history, Arena reasoned that Trinidad’s position in the table will actually help them make the game more difficult for the U.S.
“Trinidad is a different opponent,” he said. “When we play them in the 10th game, they will be out of the competition and that presents a problem. I think they’ll be a team that’s relaxed, has no pressure on them and can play free. They have a team with some good athletes, good pace and a difficult environment to play, so I think they will be challenging as well.”
The grueling Hex spans 10 games and 11 months, and points from game one count the same as game 10. Though the side sits fourth going into the last set of games, the MNT has still battled to put itself in position to control its own destiny for Russia.
“I know it looks like were in a difficult situation, but we’re a point out of third place and we’re playing the team that’s ahead of us at home, so that’s a real positive. If we’re able to beat Panama, we head into the last game with a very good chance of finishing third in the group. I like our chances, and at the end of the day it’s up to us. We have to play well in games nine and 10 in the Hex in order to qualify.”