United States of America rout Panama, edge closer to Russian Federation 2018

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Jorge Villafana held down the spot for the Costa Rica match last month. Yedlin's speed allowed him to push up in the USA attack, and his work with Rafa Benítez at Newcastle United has turned him into a much more astute defender with more tactical awareness. To determine the fifth place team, the AFC has a playoff.

Concerned over depth with nine of the 26 players carrying yellow cards, Arena is bringing in nine defenders and 10 midfielders.

One match in Africa will take place on Friday, as the Ivory Coast meets Mali.

The Americans were comfortable for the second half and closed up shop keeping a dispirited Panama at arm's length. The three points earned allowed the U.S.to leapfrog Panama in the CONCACAF standings and leave Bruce Arena's side in prime position to punch its ticket to Russian Federation with Tuesday's match at Trinidad & Tobago. A draw would change nothing between the two. They'd have to wait out the results of Honduras' final matches, but they'll be underdogs against both Mexico and Costa Rica. Then it would truly come down to the final day of qualifying matches, which are on October 10. The U.S. team stumbled at the start of the 2018 qualifying matches, and Klinsmann was sacked.

Bruce Arena's side are winless in their last three qualifiers, including a defeat at home to second-placed Costa Rica, the first time in which the Americans have lost two home games in the same World Cup cycle since 1957. A loss meant Panama was out completely. The Stars and Stripes proceeded to go undefeated in Arena's first 14 games in charge, winning the Gold Cup and reviving their qualification campaign in the process.

That was the vibe after a dominant 4-0 win over Panama, at least. (Ask Lionel Messi, whose Argentina team is in serious jeopardy of missing the World Cup.) His opening goal was brilliant-the way he stopped his run on one leg to reach back and corral the ball on the other, then instantly reached top speed again is the definition of "you can't teach that".

Panama had its only clear opportunity of the night early on but Gabriel Torres wasted a good counterattack by shooting high and wide of the frame from just outside the penalty area instead of playing Alberto Quintero in. Putting him through 90 minutes of tough competition twice a week is taxing on the veteran. Sure Costa Rica had beaten the United States 4-0 in their game in Central America, but the U.S. had beaten them 4-0 last summer and in the Gold Cup this past summer and was riding a 15 game unbeaten streak since Bruce Arena became the USMNT's head coach again. That helps Panama not see this match as a daunting task.

Pressure was on the U.S. to claim all three points, with the American side occupying fourth position before kick-off, only enough for an inter-confederation play-off berth. Panama did what most CONCACAF minnows do when they face a player who completely outclasses them and opted to foul the hell out of Pulisic all night. Like most great things in life, you've got to earn it.

That can be an attractive bit of motivation for small Concacaf teams, however, especially when there is a chance to ding the mighty United States. While a win against Trinidad and Tobago is certain, if the Stars and Stripes manage to even draw against Panama, it would be enough to see them in Russian Federation.

The last four matches between the two had all ended in draws, a result which would have suited Hernan Dario Gomez's side, who close out qualifying next week against a Costa Rican side who should have joined Mexico in qualifying by then. This Friday's game really is a toss-up and could be decided by a lucky bounce.

Altidore described Panama as an organized team that moves the ball quickly and is good on the counterattack, so the US needs "to be conscious of that" and not give the ball away in "silly places". Without much real competition or many tournaments that grab the American sports world's attention, the World Cup is the only thing that matters for the USMNT.

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