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Goal for U.S.: Two wins and in World Cup

By David Smale, The Sports Xchange
Goal for U.S.: Two wins and in World Cup
Team USA Soccer Twitter

With two matches left in the Hexagonal to determine the three World Cup spots for CONCACAF, the U.S. men's national team has its destiny in its hands heading into a crucial match against Panama on Friday night in Orlando, Fla.

While sitting in fourth place in the group, Team USA still holds all the cards in determining its destiny for World Cup 2018 in Russia. With victories in the last two matches, the U.S. squad will earn one of the three automatic spots.

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A victory Friday would not secure the spot for the Americans, but it certainly would go a long way.

Just a point separates third-place Panama from the United States. A victory by the Americans would put Bruce Arena's side two points ahead of Panama heading into the final match, a visit to sixth-place Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday.

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However, Panama can clinch the country's first World Cup berth with an upset victory over the United States. Panama hosts Costa Rica on Tuesday.

The Americans have never lost to Panama in World Cup qualifying matches (5-0-2) and own a 12-1-6 all-time record in the series. The sides played to a 1-1 draw at Panama City in late March.

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Team USA earned a critical point in its last match when Bobby Wood scored the equalizer in the 85th minute in Honduras in a 1-1 draw last month. The point earned was just as important as the two it denied Honduras, and the result positioned the U.S. to have the power that any team would ask for: the ability to dictate its own World Cup fate.

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"It sets us up for these last two games in terms of everything being there for us," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "Controlling our own destiny and knowing that whatever else happens, we have 180 minutes to make sure we're going to Russia."

And while fate is in their own hands, the Americans know there's no more margin for error. The team has been in that position twice before during this cycle and each time responded in the best way.

After falling 2-0 to Guatemala during semifinal-round play in March 2016, the U.S. team faced a quick turnaround and prospect of early elimination if it fell in the return match four days later in Columbus, Ohio. Instead, an inspired U.S. side rattled off a 4-0 victory, the first of three consecutive to finish on top of the group.

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Following two successive defeats to open the Hex last November, the Americans began turning this around with a 6-0 victory against Honduras. Four days later, it battled to a 1-1 road draw with Panama.

"Since I've been part of the national team -- even before that -- whenever our backs are against the wall, the team has always been resilient and able to answer that call," defender Graham Zusi said. "I don't expect anything different from this game on Friday night.

"At the end of the day, getting three points in the ninth and 10th game counts the same as getting them in the first or second game. Our mission and goal is to be qualified and be on a plane to Russia, and we're going to do everything we can to make that happen."

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