Pressure is on USMNT ahead of critical World Cup qualifiers

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The next two U.S. national team games will be pivotal in deciding the direction of the program in the coming years. It’s that simple.

[ MORE: Pulisic responds to criticism ]

Next week the USMNT host Panama (Oct. 6) and then head to Trinidad & Tobago (Oct. 10) in two crucial 2018 World Cup qualifiers which they dare not lose as their four-year cycle comes down to two games.

If they lose either games the prospect is very real that they will not be at a World Cup finals for the first time since 1986.

[ MORE: Qualifying scenarios for USMNT

Of course, if they finish fourth in the Hexagonal round of CONCACAF qualifying then they will still have a chance but will face a home and away game against the winner of the Australia/Syria playoff for a spot in Russia.

The pressure is stacked on Bruce Arena’s men to hold their nerve and get at least four points from their final two CONCACAF qualifiers in the Hex which they will likely need to seal the third and final automatic berth to the 2018 World Cup in Russia. The fact that they are in this position in the first place is down to a multitude of factors but Arena’s arrival had sparked a unbeaten run of 14 games, a Gold Cup success and a promising draw at Mexico.

All of that good work came undone last month.

With plenty of injury concerns, players out of form, widespread criticism for the team and a mental barrier to overcome following the 2-0 defeat to Costa Rica and a battling, unimpressive 1-1 draw away at Honduras in early September during the last international window, Arena’s side are now in a lose-lose situation.

Qualify for the World Cup and U.S. fans and pundits will shrug their shoulders and sarcastically applaud. Fail to qualify and all hell will break loose. A poor start to the final round of qualifying cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job and initial optimism around Arena’s second-coming will end in tears.

Speaking to U.S. Soccer, the head coach is being realistic about the final hurdle standing in the USA’s way.

“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. “Panama and ourselves are fighting for the third and fourth position in the group. 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.”

When Panama roll up to Orlando next Friday, the majority of the 26,000-plus crowd will be expecting a home win which will see the USMNT have one foot in Russia. The fact of the matter is, next Friday is Panama’s World Cup final.

For Panama the equation is simple: win against the USA and they qualify for the World Cup for the first time in their history.

Panama also know that a draw will also be a hugely favorable result as they host Costa Rica in their final group game and Los Ticos will have almost certainly have already qualified automatically by that point, meaning Panama will face a weakened outfit with nothing to play for. The U.S. will then go to T&T at a smaller venue with the home players relaxed and nothing to play for just to add more difficulty to their situation.

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For the U.S. the scenarios are plentiful but the simplest way they can finish in third is by winning their final two games of qualifying.

Chatting to Pro Soccer Talk recently, the USMNT’s teenage sensation, Christian Pulisic, said these games against Panama and T&T have been in the back of his mind ever since the disappointing results to start off September.

“Obviously now I am focusing on [Borussia] Dortmund. We have big games coming up. But it’s there,” Pulisic admitted. “We have to do everything we can and I am going to do everything I can do to help us qualify.”

It is too early to talk up the “what next?” scenarios when it comes to Arena’s future and that of his team but quite simply if he fails to take the U.S. to the World Cup he will have to leave his role immediately as the sole reason for hiring him was to lead the USA to Russia in the short term. Arena is contracted through the end of the 2018 tournament but it’s not too drastic to start thinking about where the U.S. is heading post-Russia 2018, irrespective of whether or not they qualify.

Peter Vermes, Jason Kreis and Jesse Marsch would surely be the frontrunners from the former U.S. national team players currently coaching in Major League Soccer to replace Arena and nurture the talented group of youngsters Tab Ramos is developing at youth national team level.

Or would Sunil Gulati — if he’s even in charge after the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hold their presidential election in February 2018 — plump for another big-name foreign coach a la Klinsmann to totally rebuild the USMNT’s reputation?

At this points its all ifs and buts but if the U.S. don’t qualify for the World Cup then Gulati’s position would come under serious threat as contenders line up to challenge his 11-year, previously unchallenged stint making all of the big calls for U.S. Soccer.

All of these issues will be multiplied and magnified if the U.S. doesn’t get through the next two qualifiers. Can you seriously imagine a World Cup without the USMNT in it? It is not a pretty picture for anyone concerned. The USSF. The players. Major League Soccer. Commercial partners. And, heck, even the future of the game in the country might take a hit given the huge rise in interest in the game every four years which almost certainly yields new fans of the game across the country.

Seemingly unfazed by the enormity of what lies ahead in the next two weeks, Arena is bullish about the USA’s chances of advancing. After all, he has to be.

Gulati and Arena must shudder to think about the impact the opposite outcome will have for everyone connected with U.S. Soccer.

“I like our chances. 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,” Arena said. “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.”