Opportunity knocks: The United States could officially qualify for World Cup 2014 with a win tonight against rival Mexico

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COLUMBUS, Ohio – A tremendous double dip of opportunity stands before the United States national soccer team Tuesday night in Ohio.

Qualifying for a World Cup is clearly the be-all, end-all in world soccer, the dream-maker that defines individual careers and helps assign rank to the game’s global order.

Booking official passage to World Cups has become a quadrennial U.S. highlight, and officially nailing the high-stakes target is always a moment to breath it all, to ceremonially harvest the fruits of three years labor. That could all happen tonight.

And then there is the rivalry with Mexico, a bit of a fallen giant at the moment, reeling from a weekend coaching change and teetering too close to the unfamiliar cliff of World Cup elimination. Every U.S. player, coach and supporter, even those feeling a touch of empathy, relishes the opportunity to sock El Tri in the nose at every possible chance.

(MORE: #DosACero — looking the U.S-Mexico history in Columbus)

So that’s the double dose of opportunity when U.S. manager Jurgen Klinsmann’s and his national team kicks off tonight from Crew Stadium, the chosen venue now for more than a decade for these critical World Cup qualifiers against Mexico. Game time at the 24,000-seat home of the Columbus Crew is 8 p.m. ET (ESPN, in Spanish on UniMas).

The Americans are in great shape in the six-team final-stage CONCACAF group, from which three teams qualify for Brazil, with a fourth heading into a play-in series against New Zealand. Klinsmann’s team will make it official with a win tonight, coupled with a Honduras win or tie at home against Panama.

source:  Klinsmann badly wants to seal the deal in Columbus and was upset about Friday’s loss in Costa Rica, about dropping an opportunity move closer to the finish line there.  “You do not want to wait,” he said. “You want to [qualify] at the next possible chance. Knowing what Mexico is going through, but we have to look this purely from our end,  and we have got to secure our points, and make sure nobody is getting nervous about it.”

U.S. Soccer federation leaders leave money on the table by not staging U.S.-Mexico at a larger venue. But smaller facilities allow organizers to better control ticket sales, helping to ensure a pro-American crowd. Plus, there’s that increasingly meaningful history; The United States defeated Mexico in Columbus, sometimes famously so, en route to World Cup qualification in 2001, 2005 and 2009.

“We have history here, and for soccer in our country that not always the case,” injured U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said Monday. “So for us to walk into a stadium where there is history, it’s a special feeling. The people in Columbus, in this part of the United States, they love soccer, they love our team, the love supporting soccer in the United States.

“So when we come here, when we step out on the field, there is an overwhelming feeling of American support. When you play against Mexico, when you play in these games where so much is on the line, that can push us. That can help the bar swing our way.”

(MORE: Michael Bradley talks about his injury, absence)

U.S. defender/midfielder DaMarcus Beasley (pictured above) called the Columbus effect the team’s “12th man on the field.”  Beasley, who has been around the team since before the 2002 World Cup, knows better than most that hasn’t always been the case for U.S. matches.

Even with such slanted history, this contest is painfully difficult to predict. Both teams have significant holes to fill. For the United States, that starts with Bradley, the most indispensable U.S. man these days. But with three key figures out due to yellow card accumulation, Klinsmann also has holes to fill at center back and striker, plus looming decisions at two pesky trouble spots, left and right back.

(MORE: Where is the biggest hole in the U.S. lineup?)

Still, if you put the United States problems on the table and then look at Mexico’s mangled pile-up of issues, you’ll take the U.S. set. Mexico has lineup issues and an ongoing inability to score goals, for starters, plus the comprehensive turmoil of a coaching change with just three matches remaining in final stage of World Cup qualifying.

Last Friday’s loss at home to Honduras was the final straw for Mexican manager Jose Manuel de la Torre, who was replaced within hours by assistant Luis Fernando Tena. How El Tri will react – motivated by the coaching change, or stuck in the same funk, with the same set of players and most of the same coaching staff? – really is anybody’s guess.

Klinsmann and his players warned that Mexico remains a dangerous team, with talent throughout the lineup, even if they haven’t put the pieces together in the best way possible. U.S. forward Clint Dempsey says the players don’t see Mexico as “vulnerable.”

“Mexico is a team that has quality, and we need to prepare that way,” Clint Dempsey said. “Every game at home is a must-win, you have to get those points at home to get to a World Cup.

“Getting to the World Cup is the most important thing, no matter how we do it. But you don’t want to wait ‘til the last game, wanting other teams to do you a favor because you weren’t able to get the job done. So we liked to get it wrapped up as soon as we can.”

(MORE: U.S. wary of Mexican backlash amid team turmoil)

(MORE: Jurgen Klinsmann says the time to qualify is NOW!)

(MORE: Klinsmann adds in reinforcements for Tuesday’s match vs. Mexico)

(MORE: Who should start against Mexico?)

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
———————
USMNT — 4 points
———————-
Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

Three takeaways from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw at Panama

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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What did we learn from the United States’ 1-1 draw in Panama City on Wednesday?

For one thing, that the coach isn’t going to matter without a number of your very best players.

[ MORE: Match recap | Player ratings ]

The USMNT saw precious few moments of brilliance from its injury-ravaged side, saved by its soon-to-be all-time leading scorer, its 18-year-old star attacker, and its legendary goalkeeper.

But mainly, we saw that you can change the boss, but you need better performances to make a difference.

Limits of depth tested in ugly affair

Bruce Arena was without his best center back pairing thanks to injury, and you could argue he was without his best back four if you see Fabian Johnson as a left back (John Brooks, Geoff Cameron, DeAndre Yedlin, and Johnson).

The U.S. also couldn’t pair Bobby Wood with Jozy Altidore or Clint Dempsey, and lost Sebastian Lletget to injury on Friday. Timmy Chandler has rarely thrived with the USMNT, but it certainly would’ve been nice if Arena had called him up for the second match alone (He was suspended Friday for yellow card accumulation).

Given the above, this was not a pretty match. You just have to hope this isn’t the result that keeps them from Russia.

Mexico, revisited (What game plan?)

This might be an unpopular take, but Tuesday’s loss was nothing more than the performance put forth against Mexico in Columbus.

The main differences? Tim Howard was there to make a tremendous save, and Panama is nowhere near to the level of El Tri.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The Yanks didn’t have a great plan other than to outwork Panama. This isn’t a big knock on the coach’s tactics given the lack of starting caliber players noted above, but once Panama flooded the middle of the pitch with fouls and tight tackles, an answer wasn’t provided by the players or the coach.

Plan B hasn’t been a U.S. strong suit for a long time, perhaps back to the finer moments of the Bob Bradley era. Arena got away with one on Tuesday.

Rough road ahead

This is something we know, but my was it reinforced: Winning CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers at home is a necessity, because there’s carnage and bad pitches on the road.

Perhaps that could’ve changed if referee Cesar Ramos brought a yellow card out for either team at any point in the proceedings. Christian Pulisic and Darlington Nagbe were fouled as part of Panama’s game plan, and the Yanks’ beleaguered defense went with a similar plan as the sloppy match wore into the waning moments.

The U.S. is still in control of its own World Cup destiny, of course, but simply must handle its business in remaining home matches against Trinidad and Tobago, Panama, and Costa Rica. T&T is next, and anything other than three points sends them into Azteca in a bad, bad way.

Player ratings from the USMNT’s 1-1 draw in Panama

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Player ratings reverted to old form after Tuesday’s 1-1 draw in Panama City, though fortunately one of the other U.S. tropes is dead.

That’s because “Christian Pulisic is the future” can officially be moved into “Christian Pulisic is the present”.

[ MORE: Match recap | 3 things ]

The Borussia Dortmund teenager again manufactured the United States’ best moment, feeding Clint Dempsey for the Yanks’ lone goal.

Starting XI

Tim Howard  — 7 — Don’t know what he’s supposed to do on the goal, but his jewels save to deny Luis Tejada could be a World Cup saver.

Jorge Villafana  — 4 — One of the many star men from the win over Honduras was too adventurous and less composed. Bad combo.

Omar Gonzalez  — 4 — I say this in a way that ignores Timmy Chandler’s fine work in the Bundesliga: Is Gonzalez going to be Bruce Arena’s Chandler? Hopefully this is the last time he has to start.

Tim Ream — 5 — Had a bad time on the goal, and made several bad plays. But it’s hard to get a read on the Fulham’s man night because he bailed out Gonzalez and Villafana on a number of occasions.

Graham Zusi  — 5 — Gets bumped up a point for handling a very difficult situation, still adapting to right back in a match where Panama’s tactics were to attack his side. A better second half than the first.

Michael Bradley  — 6 — Nothing exceptional from the captain, but still an upgrade from his form under Jurgen Klinsmann. A little too deep in the formation on the evening, but that could’ve been the plan?

Jermaine Jones  (Off 75′) — 5 — Ornery as usual, his only successes came in standing up for his oft-fouled midfield mates.

Darlington Nagbe  (Off 68′) — 6  — This game looked set up for him to pick the ball up from Michael Bradley and dance into the midfield, but he only got a few chances as Panama’s tactics were aimed at fouling the Yanks’ two best dribblers in him and Pulisic.

Christian Pulisic  — 9 — A simply incredible bit of work to work two veteran defenders and assist Dempsey’s goal. Failing an unforeseen dip in company, Pulisic is going to be one of the most important players in American men’s history.

Clint Dempsey  — 6 — Scored the goal that earned the point, but otherwise fought to be a part of the match. That’s the sign of a legend, though, still finding a way to make himself matter on a poor evening.

Jozy Altidore  — 5 — Might’ve had a dozen touches in the game. Part of this was down to the U.S. aiming balls at his head and not his feet, but not his day.

Subs

Alejandro Bedoya (On 68′)  — 6 — Dogged work rate from the Union man.

Kellyn Acosta (On 75′) — 6 — Some creativity on display in limited time

Paul Arriola (On 83′) — N/A —