'It's do or die' - Panama qualifier is the USMNT's biggest match in 15 years

The U.S. national team has played on bigger stages over the past decade and a half, but Friday's match in Orlando is the most important of them all
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ORLANDO, Fla. — The U.S. national team has graced many a grand stage over the past 15 years. That includes a Confederations Cup final and a number of tense World Cup clashes. We've also seen the spectacle of the CONCACAF Cup, and a Copa America semifinal last summer.

Yet none of those contests can match what's at stake in the upcoming World Cup qualifier versus Panama. Come Friday night, Orlando City Stadium will play host to the U.S. national team's biggest match since the 2002 World Cup quarterfinal against Germany.

At 2-3-3, the U.S. sits fourth in the CONCACAF standings — good for a playoff date with Australia or Syria next month. A win will see the Americans leapfrog Panama for a top-three spot — and the automatic berth that comes with it — going into their Hexagonal finale against Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday. A draw would leave the U.S. in a perilous position, and a defeat could put the Americans on the verge of elimination.

"We're in a position now where it's do or die, and we all understand that," U.S. defender Omar Gonzalez said. "We all understand what needs to be done, how we need to step out on the field, the focus that we need to have, the match intensity we need to have throughout the 90 minutes-plus."

But is a qualifier against an underdog that has never been to a World Cup really a bigger occasion than, say, a meeting with a heavyweight in the main event?

Yes, it is. The U.S. could lose three straight on its way to a swift exit in Russia next summer and that would be an infinitely better scenario for the program than failing to qualify entirely.

First off, it's safe to say plenty of jobs and dollars are at stake. Should the U.S. miss out on Russia, the team would lose six-plus months of buildup — and the unparalleled exposure to fans, media and sponsors that comes with it.

Let's also remember that the U.S. boasts a potentially transcendent talent in 19-year-old playmaker Christian Pulisic, who would be denied the ultimate showcase. Who would casual fans recognize if there had been no Belgium game to raise Tim Howard's profile, or Algeria goal to make Landon Donovan an icon? The World Cup is a star-making exercise, after all.

Fewer American soccer stars is bad news for MLS, a burgeoning league that would surely feel the repercussions. And who knows how long it would take to restore the belief among a disenchanted fan base.

The best-case scenario is that development of men's soccer stateside would simply be stalled — not stopped or reversed. Even then, missing out on the injection of momentum that comes with the World Cup would be a bitter pill to swallow.

"We continue to grow the game in this country," coach Bruce Arena said. "The game in the U.S. is at its highest point in its history, with a growing domestic league, very competitive national team in a region that continues to grow as well, and it's important that we continue to qualify for World Cups. I don't know how you actually quantify that, but it's certainly very important."

It's a sweeping storyline that reverberates throughout the American soccer pyramid, from pitches to office parks. Yet history will be etched by 11 players of Arena's choosing. For the U.S. squad, the Hex has been packed with pressure ever since those back-to-back losses to kick off the final stage in November.

But the U.S. used to have plenty of breathing room and points for the taking. In claiming just one point from their two September qualifiers, the Americans burned their full allotment of off-nights.

"We understand what's at stake," Pulisic said. "But we've been in similar positions before and we're going to give it everything to try to win."

Had the U.S. defeated Germany back in 2002, Arena's squad would have found itself facing a beatable South Korea side for a spot in the World Cup final. The weight of that quarterfinal was clear.

It's taken a decade and a half for the U.S. to find itself in a moment of comparable magnitude — albeit for very different reasons. But make no mistake: This match is as big as it gets for the U.S. national team.

"This is why we play and coach in these type of games," Arena said. "This is what high-level athletes and coaches are supposed to be about. We're playing in a big game — that means there's going to be big moments, and we need to have big performances. I believe we're prepared to do that."