It may not look that way on a map, but the most direct route for the U.S. national team to reach Russia for next summer's World Cup is to go through Panama.
In fact, it may be the only way. Because if the U.S. doesn't beat Panama in Friday's qualifier at Orlando City Stadium (7:35 p.m. EDT, ESPN2, Univision), it could miss the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
"I don't need to lecture our players on the significance of the game," coach Bruce Arena said Thursday. "They understand that."
A draw won't eliminate the U.S. from World Cup contention. And even with a loss the Americans could still qualify by winning a two-leg intercontinental playoff with either Syria or Australia next month.
But in both scenarios the U.S. has to rely on help from others. Beat Panama, though, and the U.S. vaults over the Central Americans to grab CONCACAF's third and final automatic spot for next summer's World Cup, leaving it in charge of its own destiny heading into next week's final qualifier with Trinidad and Tobago.
"We're playing at home and the only thing acceptable is three points," midfielder Paul Arriola said. "We can't leave the field without three points."
Added captain Michael Bradley: "Games don't get much bigger than this. ... There's no margin for error. And we understand that. We're looking forward to the challenge."
If the stakes are high for the U.S., one of seven countries to have qualified for the last seven World Cups, they may be even higher for Panama, which has never played in soccer's biggest event. It came close four years ago when, needing to beat the U.S. in its final qualifier to advance to the intercontinental playoff, it gave up a 2-1 lead in stoppage time and lost.
That leaves the Central Americans playing for both revenge and a World Cup berth on Friday.
"They're very motivated," Bradley said. "They have a group of players that have been together for a long time."