ORLANDO, Fla. — The last time the United States failed to qualify for the World Cup you could scarcely find soccer on American television, goalkeeper Tim Howard was 6, Bruce Arena was still coaching lacrosse part-time, Major League Soccer did not exist and virtually the entire current squad had not been born yet.
Things have certainly changed in the sport since May 31, 1985, when a home defeat to Costa Rica kept the U.S. out of the World Cup in Mexico the following summer. The national team has managed to qualify for the seven tournaments since, often fairly comfortably, and if the current crop is unable to save its troubled 2018 campaign and suffers elimination over the next four days it would feel like a huge backward step.
“The game in the U.S. is at the highest point in its history,” Arena said ahead of Friday’s crucial clash with Panama.
Arena’s team has nine points and is in fourth place in the group with two games remaining, including Tuesday's match at Trinidad and Tobago. The top three teams qualify for next summer's World Cup in Russia. The fourth-place team will face Syria or Australia in a playoff.
“It is very important to continue to grow the game in this country," he said. "It is important that we continue to qualify for World Cups. We know this is a huge game.”
The road to, or at least toward Russia, began for the U.S. in late 2015. After two years, 14 matches, a coaching change when Arena replaced Jurgen Klinsmann and plenty of head scratching, it now boils down to two must-win games and one key factor.
“People can come and say it is just another game but the reality of the situation is that it is not just another game,” midfielder Paul Arriola said. “A lot of us have not been in a situation like this, where we can really complicate ourselves if we don’t get three points. There is a lot of pressure on us to perform but the reason all of us is here is to win.”
On paper, the U.S. has enough talent and pedigree to get the victories in Orlando and Couva, Trinidad. The U.S. team has spouted optimism for months, but that didn’t prevent a home loss to Costa Rica and a road tie vs. Honduras that left them in troubled waters. There comes a time when you have to back up the talk.
“Games don’t get much bigger,” captain Michael Bradley said. “From the get go we’ve been in a situation where our back was up against the wall. You get to the end and our margin for error is virtually gone.”
Time for a revival is running out. Anything less than six points from the next final two double round-robin games would leave the U.S. in danger of either being forced into a playoff, or even missing out altogether. And Panama might be the trickiest of opponents to face from the CONCACAF region when you’re desperately chasing a win.
The Central Americans are defensive-minded, intensely physical and have conceded only five goals in eight games during this round of qualifying. Those factors could put the U.S. in a tricky spot if it feels compelled to attack late in Friday's game. Getting caught on the break is dangerous, as the squad found in its loss Costa Rica last month.
The past four meetings with Panama have each ended in ties, and the U.S. survived a bruising encounter in Panama City in March, when Christian Pulisic received especially rough treatment.
“It is to be expected,” Pulisic said. “These teams are not going to give it to us easy. They are going to come in hard and it will be the same (Friday).”
Arena is trying a few different things, having left one of his most accomplished players, Fabian Johnson, out of the squad and bringing in former coach Bob Bradley to add some wisdom.
These are tense times and a need to step up is overdue. The struggles so far have been disturbing, but being absent when the World Cup begins in June would be a significant and lasting blow to the program.
“I don’t have to lecture the players,” Arena said. “They know how important this game is.”