The USA is getting set for a crucial World Cup qualifier against Panama, its hopes of reaching the big tournament hang in the balance. The team has qualified for every World Cup since 1990, but its hopes of extending that run to 2018 are teetering on a knife-edge. A poor run of form has seen the USA win just two of its eight qualifying fixtures so far, leaving it fourth in the table. Mexico and Costa Rica are out of sight at present and it is now locked in a three-way battle with Panama and Honduras for the final two spots.

The third placed team qualifies automatically for the World Cup, which is being held in Russia next summer, but the team that finishes fourth has to go into a playoff against an Asian side to see who makes it. If the USA finishes fourth it still has a chance, but it really needs to aim for that third spot. Right now unbeaten Mexico tops the group with 18 points, followed by Costa Rica on 15. Those two are looking good for the first and second spots. Next up is Panama on 10 points, followed by the USA and Honduras on nine points apiece, with Trinidad & Tobago well adrift with just three points.

This makes USA’s upcoming game against Panama absolutely vital. Win and it will leapfrog Panama into third place. But lose and Panama will move four points clear, leaving USA’s prospects of reaching the World Cup looking particularly bleak. That would be embarrassing for the country, as its soccer pedigree has been on an upward curve for a long time now. Failure to reach the World Cup would be a massive step backwards, reminiscent of the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. The country needs to be represented at the World Cup to get young fans excited as they are far more likely to be into basketball, football, baseball or hockey. Basically, not being in Russia next summer would be disastrous.

The soccer federation recognizes that and took the dramatic step of firing coach and German legend Jurgen Klinsmann after two poor results at the start of the qualifying campaign. Bruce Arena, the most successful coach in the national team’s history, was parachuted in to save the day, but it has not quite worked out for him either. Since he came back, there has been three wins, three draws and one defeat – certainly an upturn in form, but not one dramatic enough to see them move into the top three in the group. They played two qualifiers earlier in September and it was a disaster as they lost 2-0 at home to Costa Rica and then were held to a 1-1 draw away at Honduras, who finished the game with 10 men due to a sending off.

A sharp improvement is needed against Panama, but the team faces a really tough challenge. The last four games between these two sides have all finished 1-1, so the likelihood of that happening again seems high. Review Bovada when looking to take advantage of odds, and you will see that the most likely outcome according to the sportsbooks is a 1-1 draw. USA is the favorite, but the odds are close and it will be a hard-fought encounter. Panama is very strong defensively and have conceded just five goals in eight games during qualifying. They do not score often, less than a goal per game in fact, so you can expect this to be a low-scoring encounter and Panama would view another 1-1 draw as a strong result. USA has to be bold and take the game to its opponent, while remaining disciplined at the back. It could do with sneaking a 1-0 victory, and Christian Pulisic could be crucial as he has the ability to unlock a tight defense with a moment of magic. But if the USA concedes, it will be a long way back for the team, so they really need to stay strong at the back