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When the United States host Panama in Seattle on Tuesday night, it will be a brilliant opportunity for the United States to go atop the group with half of their Hexagonal games in the bag.
In other words, anything less than a win will be a major disappointment and a golden chance wasted. It may be far from a must-win situation, but three points on Tuesday would put the team in a very comfortable position to qualify for the World Cup.
After four games, the United States are in solid position on the table, considering four of their last six games are at home. Here's the current table:
With Mexico and Costa Rica playing tonight (Tuesday), a draw in that game and a United States win would put them alone atop the table and in very comfortable position to qualify. And if Mexico wins, remember that the United States has a game in hand on their southern rivals.
Besides, the United States doesn't have to win the group, the goal will just be to finish in the top three. The top three teams automatically qualify for the World Cup, while the fourth-place team will face New Zealand in a home-and-away playoff series.
And with 10 points in hand and three more home games, it would be pretty hard to imagine the U.S. failing to qualify for the World Cup.
Plus, Panama will be without their most dangerous offensive weapon, forward Blas Perez, who will miss the game due to gastroenteritis. And any Seattle Sounders fan can tell you that the atmosphere at CenturyLink Field should be crackling with energy and noise.
The United States cannot blow this opportunity. A win here, coupled with a June 18th win in Utah against Honduras, would put them well in front of the fourth-placed team with just four games remaining. Trips to Costa Rica and Panama won't be easy, nor will a home game against Mexico at RFK Stadium, but two wins in the next two games would make it very hard for the United States to fall out of the top four.
At the end of the day, the bottom line is this: the United States are the better team at home. They have the two best players in this game, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey. They are fresh off of a vital win in Kingston against Jamaica, and while the absences of Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi will hurt, they are the deeper, more talented side.
Anything less than three points is unacceptable. This is about more than just qualification—if the United States want to make any noise at the World Cup, this is the type of game they must win. When the best in the world all get together every four years, a failure to seize golden opportunities is the fastest way to play three group games and go home early.
The United States may not be among the world's elite, but against Panama they can prove that they are at least among North America's elite alongside Mexico.