For the USMNT, the task is simple: secure full points to solidify a spot for the 2018 World Cup next summer. For the Panamanians, it’s about avenging their disappointing loss four years ago to the USMNT, which ended their World Cup dreams.
But the tables have turned for Panama four years later, putting them ahead of the Americans in the Hexagonal with a good shot of making their first World Cup ever.
While the US national team, one point and one place behind their opponent in the standings at present, control their own destiny, so do Panama, according to USMNT forward Jozy Altidore.
“Until your place is secure there’s always pressure, right? So, there’s pressure for them, there’s pressure for everybody, but it’s also part of being a pro, so it’s nothing new,” Altidore told reporters on Thursday.
Panama head into Friday’s game with the second-best defense in the Hex standings, with only five goals allowed.
For 19-year-old US star Christian Pulisic, the challenge of going up against a firm Panamanian side is what’s to be expected in these types of games.
“It’s to be expected in CONCACAF. These teams aren’t going to give it to us easy,” said Pulisic. “We have to be ready for that. They’re going to come in hard, they’re going to be the same, I’m sure, and we have to respond well to it.”
Speculation of whether the USMNT will have a strong lineup going into their last two qualifier games have been of interest heading into Friday’s game. One that loomed in particular was Fabian Johnson’s omission from the roster. Johnson, who has struggled early in the season for Borussia Monchengladbach, has nonetheless been one of the USMNT's best players in recent years.
“We just put together a roster we thought that gave us the best chance to be successful in these two games,” said Arena. “I think Fabian is a very good player. We continue to move forward with the national team, I would suspect he’s going to be in camps down the road.”
Defender Jorge Villafana followed up on Arena’s comments, saying the team is capable with the roster they have of walking away with three points on Friday.
“We have the capability to go all the way,” he said. “We have good quality players in camp and Friday will be a very important match, but we have to win since it will secure our chances. We just have to go out with everything to beat Panama, we have to play with a lot of intensity but smart as well knowing it’s very important on how we control the game… there’s no margin for error.”