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Tired USMNT touches down in Orlando, poised to clinch 2022 World Cup berth

Colorado’s Ethan Horvath or Zach Steffan in goal? Pregame-brunch coaches’ decision

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Qualifier-USA at Mexico Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

The United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) touched down Friday in Orlando, Florida, after a grueling, 0-0, draw in high altitude Mexico City. The team, coaches and staff’s charter flew 1113 nautical miles to central Florida, then high tailed it in caravan style to their secluded suburban hotel in Orland to rest, rejuvenate and do their in-class homework on a pesky Panama side that must win or draw tonight in the penultimate Concacaf World Cup Qualify match for both national teams.

The pivotal showdown will be played in an MLS stadium in downtown Orlando. Last decade, the two rivals faced off here in the same venue in the second-to-final 2017 Concacaf World Cup Qualifier. Per the head coach Bruce Arena’s straightforward prematch instructions, the Yanks came out and got on Panama from the get-go. And they did not relent until the final whistle reverberated around the stadium. The team was led by the likes of Colorado Rapids’ goalkeeper Tim Howard, Toronto FC’s midfielder Micheal Bradley and attacker Jozy Altidore, and up-and-coming striker Christian Pulisic dominated the game. The USMNT won big, 4-0, before an elated and patriotic standing-room-only crowd. Howard earned yet another clean sheet, while Altidore found the back of the net twice, and Pulisic, plus each Bobby Wood, scored goals made for highlight disks. The game was billed as one of Team USA’s most important games in years as they were just two wins away from clinching a spot in the 2018 World Cup Tournament in Russia.

Despite their decisive in over Panama, the Stars and Stripes did not realize their destiny to play in Russia. Days after the crushing of the Panamanians, Trinidad Tobago upstaged the mighty Americans by defeating them, 2-1, on a soggy pitch in Ato Bolden Track and Field Stadium in Couva, Trinidad.

Fast forward four-plus years, and young and improved Yanks, led by their lionheart head coach, Gregg Berhalter, are on the cusp of finally realizing their long-delayed goal of advancing to the World Cup Tournament. The international event will be played in Qatar in 239 days.

With the help of a spirited home side crowd, a die-hard El Salvador team hosting in-the-hunt Costa Rica, and a compelling victory over the Los Canaleros, the U.S. might find themselves parading around the Exploria Stadium’s Bermudagrass field tonight, and celebrating until dawn in the Sunshine State.

Berhalter knows the value of having a home team-home crowd advantage. During yesterday’s team press conference, the skipper said, “We’re so excited to play in Orlando in front of the fans. That stadium, in my opinion, is one of the best stadiums in America for getting a crazy atmosphere. And we want to use that atmosphere, but it’s still going to be a difficult game and we need to bring the intensity if we want to win.”

Difficult indeed it will be. First, his go-to players are gassed from their back-and-forth, 7200’ contest in Mexico’s Estadio Azteca. Second, Panama, with its backs up against a wall in fifth place, must win to leap over Costa Rica, which currently holds the last playoff spot in the Concacaf standings. Third, as millions have witnessed in modern Concacaf tournament play- anything can happen between the goals, and more often than not, the improbable does. The Trinidadian Warriors’ upset win over Team USA is still fresh in everyone’s memory. I was field-side and will never forget that gut-wrench evening.

Fans of the Yanks should expect Berhalter to field his most potent offensive unit. He will combine it with a stellar backline that might include Colorado’s, cool, calm, and collective netminder, Ethan Horvath. The cordial lad came up big this summer in Denver’s Mile High Stadium when the U.S defeat a boiling-hot Mexico team in overtime. The product of the Real Soccer Club and Highlands Ranch native came in as a sub, cooled off the Mexican, and went home as the Man of the Match, if not, Man of America honors.

Horvath’s goalkeeping counterpart, Zach Steffan, who played the entire match in Mexico City, spoke at yesterday’s press conference and said, “We did exert a lot of energy with the high altitude and the field and then travel. “But I think we’re all in a good place.” He added, “We’ve done a good job to recover and get our bodies back and get our minds back. And we’ll have the training, get our legs moving, kind of get the flight out of us a little bit more and then the show gets started again.”

During the same presser, Steffan’s defensive teammate, Antonee Robinson elaborated on how he was feeling after the short turnaround, “I feel like I do the second day after every game I play; pretty tired. In terms of recovery, we’ve been given as many resources as are available. The boys are doing cryo-therapy, they’re getting on with the physio, so everyone’s doing as much as they can to put themselves in the best condition going into the game tomorrow. But you can’t take away from the fact that we played two days ago.”

Berhalter and his fellow coaches, including former Colorado Rapids manager, Anthony Hudson, who serves as one of Berhalter’s lieutenants, will be making late afternoon decisions on the starting XI. Should Steffan not himself or even at 95% today, expect Berhalter to call on Horvath to start the crucial match.

The coaching staff will also have to evaluate the overall wellness of Walker Zimmerman,Miles Robinson, Antonee Robinson, Yunus Musah, and former Colorado Rapids midfielder Kelly Acosta, who all played the entire match against the El Tri. The stouthearted Acosta gave it his per usual all and was nominated as the fan’s player of the game.

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Qualifier-USA at Mexico Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Panama is currently fifth in the Octagonal standings, one point out of the fourth-place intercontinental playoff berth and four points out of the top three automatic qualifying spots. The Panamanians are 2-4-0 in road qualifiers, their lone wins coming at Jamaica (3-0) in September and Honduras (3-2) in mid-November. Last week, they went 1-1 with last-in-the-table Honduras. The draw was a heartbreaking outcome for the now desperate team.

UPDATED USMNT ROSTER BY POSITION - FINAL LEG CONCACAF WORLD CUP QUALIFIERS:

GOALKEEPERS (3): Ethan Horvath (Nottingham Forest/ENG; 7/0), Sean Johnson (New York City FC; 9/0), Zack Steffen (Manchester City/ENG; 27/0)

DEFENDERS (10): George Bello (Arminia Bielefeld/GER; 6/0), Reggie Cannon (Boavista/POR; 24/1), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls; 22/3), Shaq Moore (Tenerife/ESP; 13/1), Erik Palmer-Brown (Troyes/FRA; 3/0), Antonee Robinson (Fulham/ENG; 23/2), Miles Robinson (Atlanta United; 18/3), James Sands (Rangers/SCO; 7/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Inter Miami; 72/0), Walker Zimmerman (Nashville SC; 26/3)

MIDFIELDERS (6): Kellyn Acosta (LAFC; 49/2), Tyler Adams (RB Leipzig/GER; 25/1), Gianluca Busio (Venezia/ITA; 8/0), Luca de la Torre (Heracles/NED; 5/0), Yunus Musah (Valencia/ESP; 14/0), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders; 31/0)

Defenders Reggie Cannon and DeAndre Yedlin are unavailable for tonight’s match. Right-back Shaq Moore was called into camp and arrived in Orlando on Thursday evening from Spain. Cannon is unavailable after testing positive for COVID ahead of Thursday’s match against Mexico, while Yedlin will serve a one-game suspension on Sunday after picking up his second yellow card of qualifying in Mexico City.

FORWARDS (8): Paul Arriola (FC Dallas; 43/8), Jesús Ferreira (FC Dallas; 7/2), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders; 44/10), Jordan Pefok (Young Boys/SUI; 9/1), Ricardo Pepi (Augsburg/GER; 10/3), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea/ENG; 46/18), Gio Reyna (Borussia Dortmund; 10/4), Tim Weah (Lille/FRA; 21/2)

The top three teams in the Octagonal qualify automatically for World Cup play while the fourth-place team will participate in an intercontinental playoff against the winner of Oceania’s qualifying tournament.

Kickoff from Orlando is set for 5 p.m. MT. The match will be televised on FS1, UniMas, and TUDN. U.S. Soccer will highlight matchplay at @USMNT