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Is USMNT’s biggest World Cup obstacle between its ears?

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Picture this, and forgive yourself if it’s a bit too easy: The United States men’s national team seizes control of its World Cup destiny with a decisive home win Friday against Panama, then needs very little from Trinidad and Tobago on Tuesday.

That second match sees the Yanks off to a slow start at Ato Boldon Stadium, a defensive fluke sending them down early en route to a wild and entertaining ending, failing to find more than an equalizer once they snap out of their funk and get to playing their game.

[ MORE: Three keys vs. Panama ]

If you were to ask me my No. 1 concern for this week’s monumental World Cup qualifiers, the ones that stand between the Americans and their hopes for a eighth-straight World Cup appearance, that’s it: Entitlement.

I’m not sure when the mentality of the USMNT went from upstart grinders to presumed favorites, but it may have happened some time in the intense scrutiny of the Jurgen Klinsmann era. We have to wonder if, under any other coach, advancing from a group with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana would’ve been viewed as anything other than an unqualified success.

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Klinsmann earned himself the opportunity to be rightly fired when his inconsistent teams looked either ill-prepared tactically or poorly-chosen toward the end of his tenure. The Mexico loss at home was disappointing, and the team looked like it hadn’t grasped what happened when it rolled into Costa Rica and got its guts kicked in by Los Ticos a few days later.

The choice of Bruce Arena as next man up was questionable in terms of ambition and scope, but would almost certainly settle the team. And it did. Though the performances were largely less than impressive, the Yanks didn’t lose for the better part of a pregnancy.

[ MORE: Who should start for USA v Panama? ]

But there were labor pains along the way, performances that raised eyebrows. For every tactically strong 1-1 draw in Mexico, there was the Gold Cup group-stage opening draw with Panama. For every 6-0 waxing of Honduras, there’s a self-satisfied 3-2 sleepwalker versus Martinique. And you could argue it birthed September’s home loss to Costa Rica and draw at Honduras.

Sure there are natural ebbs and flows to every team, but you need look no further than the top teams on the Hex table to see there are two gulfs of difference. In Mexico, there’s a top-to-bottom depth the Americans do not have, but in Costa Rica the troubles are, well, more troubling.

You cannot look at the Costa Rican squad and have much question that the best players are being called up, nor that they aren’t over-performing. Los Ticos did this at the last World Cup, and are doing it again despite changing coaches.

[ MORE: World Cup scenarios for USA ]

With incredible respect to Keylor Navas, Bryan Ruiz, Bryan Oviedo, and Marco Urena, they aren’t touching the Yanks’ corps. And that’s what makes it all the more problematic. The U.S. won the Gold Cup with a B Team, but maybe would’ve been better suited to keep more main men in the fold to grow in cohesion ahead of September.

At the risk of turning this into a gripe fest, which would be wrong when I genuinely believe the Yanks should run riot on Friday and then bear down in T&T for another win, it stings to stand not too far from a cliff that would cost Christian Pulisic, Bobby Wood, and Kellyn Acosta their first World Cups, and DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks their second.

Brooks and Fabian Johnson (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
The average age of this week’s squad is 28. It’s good enough to get two wins, especially with clear-cut, no-doubt starters like Geoff Cameron, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore, and Bobby Wood. Michael Bradley and Tim Howard likely fit that bill, too. So does Fabian Johnson, but that’s another story since he’s not up to snuff according to Arena.

The legendary coach penned an open letter to fans on Tuesday, and in it he hit on some of the talking points which have started to ring quite tiresome. CONCACAF is really hard. That other guy lost the first two games. We almost didn’t qualify before. So on, and so on.

[ MORE: Some roster gripes for Mr. Arena ]

Well, it’s 2017, and it shouldn’t matter if the other teams are a bit better because of Major League Soccer. So are your guys. The resources of U.S. Soccer, the laughably forgiving nature of CONCACAF qualifying, and the talent available dictate that the USMNT should walk to every single World Cup if it’s doing its job in an average fashion.

The U.S. is 2-3-3 in the Hex, snaring about 38 percent of available points. If it advanced with a win and draw or two wins, it will have headed to Russia with either 43 or 50 percent of possible points. Only a handful of nations are on pace to get to the World Cup with around half a points haul.

Even getting past the doubts that Arena is going to see past his tried and hopefully true philosophies and line up a team that doesn’t seem aimed at trolling his critics by becoming, as a friend put it, so anti-Klinsmann that it’s strikingly similar to Klinsmann, the Americans have the talent to pull this off and head to Russia.

Yet for the first time in a long time, it’s not skill, or tactics, or technique that I’m worried about when it comes to what could fell the USMNT; It’s mentality. And at this point, I’d rather have the crew of guys who thought they’d have to win despite their coach than the ones who feel comfortable with their boss.

The Yanks’ A Team hasn’t played well throughout consecutive matches in some time, probably going beyond Arena’s tenure and deep into Klinsmann’s (group stage of Copa America? The 2015 friendly wins in Germany and Holland?).

This week becoming a chance to try out young kids in serious competition was out of the window with September’s results, if not the opening losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. Underperforming on Friday and Tuesday could close down Arena’s chances of meaningful experimentation in November friendlies because of an unnecessary international playoff (or worse).

Maybe it’s as simple as flipping a switch. Maybe I’m overemphasizing minor mental flaws that will be systematically overrun by the magnitude of this week. I hope either of those are correct, but for the first time in ages my anxiety goes beyond skill set. And that’s nerve-wracking stuff.

Panama boss blunt and honest before nation’s World Cup debut

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SOCHI, Russia (AP) — Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez isn’t in the business of sugarcoating the truth before his team makes history by playing in its first World Cup.

The Central American team has trouble scoring and his players will need to have a good day to have any chance against Belgium on Monday, he said.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Blunt and honest, Gomez didn’t even hide his starting lineup, the normal way of doing things for coaches these days. And when asked if Panama could repeat Iceland’s upset against Argentina — the teams drew 1-1 on Saturday — the Colombian didn’t bother picking the right words when downplaying the Argentine squad.

“Iceland sent Croatia to the playoffs (in European qualifying), and it did well in the European Championship as well,” Gomez said. “It played against an Argentina squad which isn’t at the same level as Belgium right now. I mean, the distance between Iceland and Argentina isn’t as significant as the distance between Belgium and Panama.”

Gomez didn’t completely dismiss Panama’s chances of a surprise result against the Belgians, saying “anything can happen in football,” but admitted it wouldn’t be normal.

“It’s very clear that they are the favorites,” the 62-year-old coach said. “But each game is different, and if we have a good day, maybe we can achieve something.”

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

If Panama does find a way to advance past the group stage, Gomez said he already knows how he will be celebrating.

“I’ll drink two bottles of vodka,” he said laughing, before taking it back. “No, no … we are professionals.”

Gomez didn’t bother keeping his lineup a secret for the match in Sochi, naming the 11 starters without hesitating when asked about it. He even frankly talked about the formation his team would be playing Monday.

Gomez said Panama won’t be trying anything but defending against the talented Belgians, and admitted that scoring goals has been a weakness of his team entering the tournament.

“We’ve become strong on defense. It’s Panama’s virtue,” he said. “Panama isn’t a team that will score a lot of goals. We may create good chances in some matches, but we aren’t able to score. We arrive at the World Cup with problems scoring the goals.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

The 55th-ranked Panama drew 0-0 with Northern Ireland and lost 1-0 to Norway in its final warm-up matches before traveling to Russia.

It qualified for the tournament by finishing ahead of the United States in CONCACAF thanks to a last-minute victory over Costa Rica in qualifying.

Gomez said the team carries a big responsibility by representing the nation at a World Cup for the first time, and his biggest job is to get the players ready for the pressure they are about to face.

“The whole country is excited about this,” Gomez said. “I have to prepare the players mentally.”

Gomez has been coaching Panama since 2014. He was previously with Ecuador, Guatemala and Colombia.

Panama’s other Group G games will be against England on Sunday and Tunisia on June 28.

Maradona: Argentina drawing Iceland is “a disgrace”

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It’s been a pretty trying and criticism-filled 36 hours for Lionel Messi and Argentina, and that was already true before the World Cup hero that is Diego Maradona weighed in.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

No longer are La Albiceleste simply known as the side that drew tiny Iceland — the smallest nation to ever qualify for the World Cup — but now their efforts on Saturday have been dubbed “a disgrace” by Maradona.

It’s not so much the players whom Maradona, manager of the national team for the 2010 World Cup (quarterfinals appearance, beaten 4-0 by Germany), has gone after, but current boss Jorge Sampaoli for his lack of a proper gameplan befitting the opponent. As for Messi, who failed to convert a critical penalty kick, Maradona has absolved the Barcelona superstar of much of the blame — quotes from the BBC:

“It’s a disgrace. Not having prepared for the match knowing that Iceland are all [6-foot-3] tall.”

“I get the feeling there’s an anger at the heart of the team.”

“I don’t blame the players. I could blame the lack of work rate. But I can’t blame the players, much less Messi, who gave it all he had,” said Maradona.

“I missed five penalties on the spin and I was still Diego Armando Maradona. I don’t think that they dropped two points because Messi missed a penalty.”

England squad reconnects with fans with image makeover

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VOLGOGRAD, England (AP) — Whatever happens to England at the World Cup, at least the reception facing the squad should be less brutal than it was in 2014 after its exit following the group stage.’

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

For once, the players can’t be accused of hiding away, retreating behind their headphones. The hallmark of England’s preparations for Russia has been shedding the past reticence to engage with the public, a calculated move by the team leadership to reconnect with a public disaffected by years of failure at tournaments and uninspiring performances.

“They appear more relaxed. They appear more normal,” supporter Gavin Hughes said, overlooking the Volgograd Arena where England opens its World Cup campaign against Tunisia on Monday. “They appear human. They are just lads playing football at the end of the day. That’s been the problem in the past. There’s more of a togetherness.”

A defining clip of the 2010 World Cup was Wayne Rooney bellowing down the barrel of a camera after a 0-0 draw with Algeria: “Nice to see your home fans booing you, that’s what loyal support is.”

That disconnect with the public has been bridged by the 23-man squad facing the media in a 45-minute, Super Bowl-style session before leaving for Russia. The English Football Association’s approach is in a marked contrast to club duty where they are largely closeted away, save for appearances with paying broadcasters or often in controlled appearances.

[ MORE: Where to watch Monday’s games, feat. England and Belgium ]

“We’ve done a lot for the fans on social media so they can see what we are up to, which has not always been the case,” captain Harry Kane said Sunday. “It’s important while we have free time is to try to let the fans know what we are up to.”

The public is seeing a new side of the players. Not only are they more relatable but painted in a more sympathetic light, beyond the caricatures of millionaire mercenaries just chasing more money.

“That connection with the supporters is really important,” coach Gareth Southgate said. “There have been perceptions about our players for a long time … so it’s been really good for our public to see how much it means to the players to play, to see a different side of their personality.”

In a move unthinkable in years gone by, when a since-departed FA official blocked Rooney talking about his Christianity, defender Danny Rose recently opened up on his problems dealing with depression. Publicly praised by Prince William for raising awareness of health issues, Rose realizes how players can use their new platform to show their human side and inspire others.

“A lot of people messaged me to say thank you, that they know someone who is going through this or has been through that and that I’ve helped them and given them the confidence to express themselves,” Rose said. “We have a lot of down time and I’m going to think of something to help others when I get back. I’ve got time to think while I’m here and when I get back from the World Cup about how I can go forward and help people.”

[ LIVE: World Cup scores ]

It’s not just about the players feeding a voracious traveling media pack with material. Kieran Trippier, who is also Rose’s club teammate at Tottenham, told the left back he appeared no longer burdened by a private plight in England’s last World Cup warm-up game.

“I was playing with a bit of freedom,” Rose said of the victory against Costa Rica. “I think he’s got a point.”

Southgate is credited with encouraging the warmer environment, far removed from the controlling regimes under Fabio Capello and Gary Neville, who was Roy Hodgson’s assistant for the dismal 2014 World Cup and 2016 European Championship last-16 humbling to Iceland. A bemusing, running theme in the British papers at Euro 2016 in France was the players’ refusal to divulge any details of a darts tournament. The squad has been overhauled by Southgate and it has even been playing darts with the media at the World Cup base near St. Petersburg.

Southgate has been playing his part, going to fan forums in the buildup to the tournament to recognize the commitment and cost involved watching England abroad.

“Sometimes those really good people who follow us are overlooked at the expense of some who have caused problems in the past,” Southgate said.

Ultimately, results dictate the public mood and England hasn’t won a knockout game at any tournament since 2006.

“It’s about how we perform,” Southgate said, “but there’s a bigger picture.”

WATCH: World Cup, Day 5 — England, Belgium enter the fray

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The weekend might be all but over, but that doesn’t mean that 2018 World Cup action is slowing down anytime soon.

[ MORE: Latest 2018 World Cup news ] 

Monday, in fact, will be quite the opposite, as Group G giants — and a pair of popular dark horse picks — Belgium and England make their debut in Russia, taking on Panama and Tunisia, respectively.

Following Germany’s 1-0 loss to Mexico on Sunday, Group F is currently turned upside down on its head. Sweden and South Korea, who’ll face off in the day’s opener, are even more hopeful now than prior to the start of the tournament.

Below is Monday’s schedule in full.

Click here for live and on demand coverage of the World Cup online and via the NBC Sports App.


2018 World Cup schedule – Monday, June 18

Group F
Sweden vs. South Korea: Nizhny Novgorod, 8 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE

Group G
Belgium vs. Panama: Sochi, 11 a.m. ET – LIVE COVERAGE
Tunisia vs. England: Volgograd, 2 p.m. ET –LIVE COVERAGE