'This group doesn't look back' - USMNT have chance to seal World Cup dream against Panama amid looming presence of 2018 nightmare

Antonee Robinson USMNT El Salvador 2022 WC qualifier
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American soccer was devastated by the failure to qualify for Russia 2018 but Qatar is now within touching distance for Gregg Berhalter's side

When you reach this point in World Cup qualifying, the situation becomes pretty clear, and the U.S. men's national team knows exactly what lies ahead.

With a win or draw against Panama on Sunday, it will be guaranteed, at worst, a spot in the World Cup playoff.

If the team betters Costa Rica's result against El Salvador, it is in with its ticket fully punched to Qatar.

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Those are the dream scenarios, the ones which see the group finally move past everything that happened four-and-a-half years ago in Trinidad & Tobago.

However, if that night in Couva taught us anything, it's that a nightmare scenario is always possible, and that rings true this weekend as well.

Should the U.S. lose to Panama on Sunday, should that nightmare become real, its path towards the World Cup would get much, much murkier.

"We know that we have the ability that we can qualify tomorrow so it's obviously huge," said defender Antonee Robinson. "There's going to be a lot of excitement around the team, I'm very excited.

Going into it, I don't think much is going to change mindset-wise other than just trying to get the job done and knowing that, hopefully, if we've done our part, there could be a great reward at the end of it."

And, because of that reward that Robinson spoke of, there's a real argument to be made that the USMNT's clash with Panama may just be the biggest game in program history.

On the surface, that seems a bit outlandish. The U.S. has played plenty of big games before. It has played at the knockout stage of World Cups.

The Stars and Stripes took down that famous Spain team at the Confederations Cup, signaling that the U.S. was no longer a minor side on the global stage. They've competed for and won trophies while facing some of the world's best.

Sunday's game, on one hand, is just a home qualifier against Panama, a team that edged the USMNT 1-0 in Panama earlier on in qualifying.

But, on the other hand, it's a game that means so much more than that.

For the USMNT, Sunday's game offers a chance to take control, to prove that it can truly step up to the biggest of moments after showing signs several times over the last year.

It's a chance to book a spot among the world's elite, to give this young core a chance to truly shine on the biggest stage possible in Qatar.

It's also a chance to bury the demons that still hang over this program, the ones that have lurked since the day the U.S. blew it in Couva in 2017.

It's a chance to take all of that talent, all of those hopes, all of the optimism and legitimize it, proving that nights like that one several years ago cannot and will not happen again.

"I know there are similarities to last time, but we're looking forward,"said USMNT boss Gregg Berhalter. "I don't think this is a group that looks back.

"We acknowledge what happened in the past, it's part of who we are as the U.S. Men's National Team players and program. We acknowledge that but we have to forge our own path and tomorrow's a good time to do it."

If you've followed along over the last year, this USMNT doesn't really need legitimizing. Nights like Thursday prove that, as the U.S. went into Mexico and should have left the famous Azteca with three points in hand.

It didn't of course, as wasteful finishing doomed Berhalter's squad. But sometimes in this sport, performance and intent matter and, against Mexico, the U.S. played with intent.

It didn't hide from the occasion like USMNTs of old; it went toe-to-toe with Mexico in a way that most teams of years past never could have dreamed.

But, in a glass half empty kind of way, one has to wonder if the decision to play with Mexico could prove costly.

Because, in search of that point, that moment at the Azteca, the U.S. may have diminished its chance of earning three in Orlando against Panama.

Against Mexico, the U.S. took things as far as they could, expending a bunch of energy in the process. By the end of the match, the U.S. was noticeably gassed, having given all it could give in the heavy Azteca air.

So, Gregg Berhalter has some decisions to make, with several already made for him.

DeAndre Yedlin and Reggie Cannon are out, with the first due to suspension and the latter due to Covid, and, with Sergino Dest already injured, Shaq Moore has been brought in as the only healthy right back.

Timothy Weah, like Yedlin, is suspended, leaving another hole on the wing with Brendan Aaronson already out. The obvious fill-in is Gio Reyna, especially after he dazzled last time out, but can the Dortmund star play extended minutes after only recently returning from injury?

Add in the usual rotation required given the short turnaround and you have some lineup headaches for Gregg Berhalter. It's the USMNT's biggest game in years, possibly ever, and the team will not be anything close to full strength.

But that's how things work in international soccer. That's what you sign up for. The teams that succeed at this level are the ones that can manage less-than-ideal situations.

"The biggest thing that I've learned and [former USMNT boss Bruce Arena] hammered this home is that you're never going to have your best team," Berhalter said. "You're always going to be missing players and as soon as I came to terms with that, we're just we're much more peaceful about it. We're much more intentional about the next-man-up mentality because that's literally what it is."

On Sunday night in Orlando, excuses won't matter, and none will be given. There's no more room for hiccups or letdowns or setbacks. It doesn't matter what is thrown at the U.S. on Sunday because its knows it'll have to survive it, defeat it, to book their spot in Qatar.

At this point in the World Cup cycle, all that matters are results, and the USMNT knows exactly what results it needs to take this program back to where it deserves to be.

"We're excited and we just know that this opportunity that we have is really special," said goalkeeper Zack Steffen. "And we're all here for a reason. We're not taking it for granted. We're just trying to live in the moment and enjoy it all, to try and enjoy a special moment."