WASHINGTON -- A win over Panama and the United States is in.
Into the regional finals of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup, that is. The Americans lead their group with 8 points off two wins and two ties. By beating the Panamanians tonight at RFK Stadium, the US squad will secure a spot in the final six of CONCACAF qualifying, with the top three performers in that round grabbing spots for the tournament in Germany.
Of course, the Americans will need a far better effort against Panama than they gave the last time the teams met, on Sept. 8. Cobi Jones's goal in injury time rescued the Americans, giving them a 1-1 tie despite playing poorly.
What the United States needs is something similar to last Saturday's 2-0 victory at El Salvador.
"We finished this round without losing a game on the road, so I think that is a big plus for our team," coach Bruce Arena said. "Now we have Panama and Jamaica in home games."
Until the convincing win over El Salvador, the Americans were spotty on the road in this round. They did dominate the Salvadorans in the only US home game, also a 2-0 victory.
Beating Panama will require better teamwork than the Americans showed in the tie last month. Often their passes were off-target, and in wet conditions the US players appeared to tire.
But under Arena, the Americans don't quit. Indeed, they have an 11-game unbeaten streak (7-0-4) in such matches and have been particularly dangerous late in games.
Arena also has discovered some previously untested players who are ready for international competition. Brian Ching scored the late goal to tie Jamaica and Eddie Johnson connected against El Salvador on Saturday in his national team debut. A win tonight would give Arena the luxury of using even more youngsters next month against Jamaica.
"It's important to try to separate yourself from the other teams [in qualifying] and we've been able to do that a little bit," Arena said. "But we still need our focus to be on getting enough points [to advance]."
Until the win at El Salvador, the Americans had never gotten a victory in Central America outside of Honduras.
The victory did cost the team defender Cory Gibbs, who received his second yellow card of the qualifying and is suspended for tonight's game.
Panama is tied with Jamaica at 5 points and El Salvador has 3. A victory Sunday would clinch advancement for the Americans, regardless of what happens in El Salvador's match at Jamaica. But an El Salvador win and a US tie would give the Americans a spot in the next round, too.