U.S. upbeat ahead of Panama showdown

The USA (pictured) has competed in every FIFA World Cup from Italy 1990 through Brazil 2014. (Photo: AFP Services)

ORLANDO, Florida -- By winning its final two games in the CONCACAF Hexagonal, the United States can give itself a tremendous boost in the quest to reach an eighth consecutive FIFA World Cup.

If the fourth-place Americans (2W-3D-3L, 9 points, GD+1) win their final two qualifiers and fifth-place Honduras (2W-3D-3L, 9, -7) drops a point, they will book passage to Russia 2018.

If the U.S. doesn't accrue six points in those matches, the path can become complicated.

“We’re in a position where we want to be,” defender Graham Zusi said. “Our destiny is in our own hands. We control it. You’ve seen this team respond to pressure well. It always seems like we come together at the right time and take care of the job.”

The fourth-place U.S. (2W-3D-3L, 9 points) hosts third-place Panama (2W-4D-2L, 10) on Friday night.

The top three teams qualify, while the fourth-place side will face either Australia or Syria in an intercontinental playoff in November. Thus far, from CONCACAF, only Mexico has secured direct advancement.

“It’s a really simple equation for us,” remarked midfielder Dax McCarty. “We don’t want to get into all these different scenarios of, ‘What if this happens? What do we have to do?’ The main focus for us is Panama. Three points is going to be the only thing that’s acceptable.”

Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who’s hoping to compete in a third World Cup, is framing the task ahead in experienced perspective.

"There’s confidence. There’s still urgency, though. We understand what’s at stake,” he concluded. “This is about guys who are battle-tested. And grit. We’re going to have to have a good combination of footballers, guys who can take the ball, but also guys who want to roll up their sleeves and fight in the trenches.”