ORLANDO, Fla. — Months and months of stumbles have put the United States in a precarious position. The Americans could miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
Preparing for Friday's crucial qualifier against Panama, the U.S. held a closed-doors scrimmage Wednesday against Orlando City's B team. A victory Friday would put the U.S. on track to reach its eighth straight World Cup with a win or possibly a tie at Trinidad and Tobago next week. Less than a victory against the Panamanians could lead to either a playoff next month or elimination.
"There's been a real sense of urgency," captain Michael Bradley said. "Obviously you get to the end and our margin for error is virtually gone."
Mexico has 18 points and has clinched one of the three berths from North and Central America and the Caribbean. Costa Rica has 15 points heading into its game against visiting Honduras and is on the verge of clinching.
Panama is third with 10 points, and the U.S. has nine and leads Honduras on goal difference. Trinidad has three points and is all-but-eliminated.
The top three nations qualify, and fourth place has a home-and-home playoff next month against Australia or Syria — which plays its home games in Malaysia.
"People can come in and say it's just another game, but the reality is it's not just another game," winger Paul Arriola said. "We can be out. We could really, really complicate ourselves if we don't get three points this next game against Panama."
The U.S. has scored just 12 goals in eight matches in the hexagonal, half in a home rout over Honduras in Arena's first qualifier after he replaced Jurgen Klinsmann. One of Arena's more intriguing roster decisions was to bring back 32-year-old midfielder Benny Feilhaber, who hasn't appeared in a qualifier in eight years.
"He's a good passer, and in the final third of the field he has some qualities that I think we're lacking," Arena said.
Christian Pulisic, the star American midfielder who just turned 19, has been repeatedly fouled by opponents, and the U.S. will be seeking more offensive outlets.
Bradley said the goal is "to make sure that from the beginning we play in a way where the bar tilts in our favour, where we're mobile and aggressive."
After an 0-2 start in qualifying, the U.S. climbed back into contention before last month's 2-0 home loss to Costa Rica in Harrison, New Jersey. A significant percentage of the crowd at Red Bull Arena backed Los Ticos.
American players are hoping for a better atmosphere in Orlando.
"I'm expecting it to be a home game. We're in the United States," Arriola said. "This time I hope that it's filled with all Americans."
Bradley let a question go by without an answer when asked about players had discussed any signs of unity or protest, such as the ones in the opening weeks of the NFL season.
The U.S. Soccer Federation said it had received permission from FIFA to hold a moment of silence before the match in memory of the victims of the Las Vegas shootings.