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Dominating El Salvador on the road puts U.S. near final qualifying round.

U.S. was quite fortunate to escape Panama with a draw.

Ching, Donovan provide the goals as U.S. defeats El Salvador 2-0 to take Group 1 qualifying lead.

U.S. was dominant, but could have done better in beating El Salvador.

Ching gains repemption, his goal in 89th minute earning 1-1 qualifying draw in Jamaica.

Reserves spark late rally that allows U.S. to steal important road point in Jamaica.

Bocanegra header is enough for 1-1 draw with Poland.

Mission accomplished for Americans in disposing of Grenada.

Americans take it to next round with 3-2 defeat of Grenada.

Lackadaisical Americans are lucky to tie Poland.

Beasley's pair sparks 3-0 victory over Grenada to open qualifing series.

Second-half goals relieve pressure on U.S. for Grenada return leg.

McBride's two goals spark 4-0 romp over Honduras as Reyna reaches 100-cap milestone.

U.S. heads into qualifying on positive note after drubbing Honduras.

Pope knocks home rebound in stoppage time to defeat Mexico 1-0.

U.S. put in impressive effort against Mexico, even before Pope won it.

Beasley goal defeats Poland 1-0, hands Arena first win over host Europeans.

Gritty American effort defeats Poland for first win of 2004.

Califf's tally late in stoppage time salvages 1-1 draw with Haiti.

Outplayed by Haiti, Americans are fortunate to gain 1-1 draw.

Goal by teen Robben sends Netherlands past U.S. 1-0.

Netherlands was clearly superior in victory over Americans.

U.S. men

With a win against Panama, Americans are in final round of qualifying.

By Robert Wagman
SoccerTimes

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Tuesday, October 12, 2004) -- The United States men face Panama Wednesday night, knowing a victory at RFK Stadium means the Americans will advance to the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

The 7:30 p.m. (ET) match will be broadcast by ESPN2.

With two home matches remaining, the U.S. leads Group 1 with a 2-0-2 record and eight points. Panama and Jamaica are both 1-1-2 with 5 points while El Salvador trails at 1-3 with three points. The top two finishers in each of three four-nation semifinal groups move to the six-country, 10-match final round robin which will be competed in 2005.

"It's very important we don't drag this out," said Eddie Pope, a U.S. stalwart in central defense. "This (Panama) is a good team and they are on a roll. This is going to be a huge battle. It will be very scrappy. We need to prevent them from putting in too many crosses to their tall guys. We need to get to second balls. When our defense clears out of danger, we have to get those balls we didn't down there."

The U.S. will advance with a victory or two draws, against Panama and in the group finale against Jamaica. The Americans can possibly move forward with one tie in those two games, but under scenarios they don't want to consider.

"You win, you're in," U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said of the Panama match. "I think everybody here realizes how important it is. It came down to the second-to-last game in qualifying (for the 2002 World Cup). It was the same thing -- you want to get it over with. . . We have another home game if we don't get it done, but we want to get it over with now.

"As always, scoring first in these games is important. And depending how (Panama) comes out -- if they come out to defend, then we have to break them done and get a goal if we can. If they come out to play, great. It will be a good game, but we have to find a way to get an early goal."

Without a win against Panama, the Americans cannot clinch advancement before what would become a pressure-packed group finale against Jamaica November 17 at Crew Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.

"It's very important (to win), but all the games are important," said striker Brian McBride, who scored one goal against El Salvador and was deprived of another on a clearly erroneous offside call. "It's about starting right and finishing right (in group play). Every game in between those two games is important. The fact that we have the ability to clinch a spot is, I don't know if it's pressure, but you have to concentrate more, get the job done.

"I think we'd want to pass the ball better (than against El Salvador). If we pass the ball well and clean everything up, it would be good."

The top three in the final group earn berths in the 2006 World Cup in Germany. The fourth-place inhabitant faces a team from Asia in a two-game series to determine who gets an additional spot in the World Cup.

Panama has been the surprise of Group 1, challenging for a spot in the final round when many thought it was destined for last place. Playing at home, the Panamanians thought they had beaten the U.S. September 8, but midfielder Cobi Jones came off the bench for an American equalizer and a 1-1 draw two minutes into stoppage time.

Panama also won 2-1 in Jamaica. The U.S. clearly has more talent than its Wednesday opponent, but it must match its ability with effort. Manager Bruce Arena is bracing for a difficult match.

"It will be a heck of a battle," he said. "We need to be ready to play. Panama has been as impressive as anyone in the group. They've proven they can win on the road."

Arena, as his policy, did not disclose his starting lineup for Panama, but he will have to make at least one change from Saturday's dominating 2-0 victory over host El Salvador. Left defender Cory Gibbs picked up his second yellow card of the group and will have to sit Wednesday out.

Arena might use Bobby Convey in his place or could move central defender Carlos Bocanegra to the left flank to play the position he does for his club, Fulham of England. Bocanegra, who is coming off a minor hamstring strain, did not play against El Salvador, but is now ready to go. He could also replace Gregg Berhalter next to Pope in the middle, but Berhalter was impressive in San Salvador Saturday.

Arena still is trying to compensate for the loss of captain and midfielder Claudio Reyna to a thigh injury. Kerry Zavagnin had a fine match as the holding, defensive midfielder against El Salvador, but Pablo Mastroeni could start in that role for Panama. Clint Mathis turned in a sub-par effort against El Salvador, including mis-kicking a perfect set-up in front of the net Saturday, so Arena likely will make a change, possibly by bringing in Eddie Lewis, though that would move DaMarcus Beasley inside.

Kasey Keller is expected to start again against Panama after having no problems and not being tested against El Salvador. Striker Conor Casey is recovered from a minor ankle problem and could replace Josh Wolff on the front line.

The fitness of defender\midfielder Tony Sanneh, recovering from a mild hamstring strain, remains an issue. "Tony's injury is more of an issue," Arena said. "We have to evaluate him tonight and then tomorrow."

Arena says he expects Panama to play much as it did in the September meeting, trying to send balls over the top to its tall forwards, while using excellent team speed to outrace the U.S. to balls in the midfield.

Second-half substitute Ricardo Phillips dominated the midfield and the U.S. will have to mark him more closely. He has become a starter since and has emerged as a key to its offense.

"(Roberto) Brown, (Julio) Dely Valdes, Phillips and their number 10 (Julio Medina) are all very fine players," Arena said. "We had trouble with them down there and we are going to have to work very hard to contain them."

While the U.S. faces Panama, El Salvador goes to Jamaica. On November 17, El Salvador visits Panama City.

"You have to assume that both Panama and Jamaica believe they will take three points (for a victory) from El Salvador in their final matches," Arena said of the U.S.'s remaining Group 1 opponents. "That means whoever does better against us will likely advance. So when they both play us, their objective has to be to keep us from getting three points. Both will need to take away a point (for a draw).

"I expect a real struggle tomorrow."


United States roster

Goalkeepers (2): Tim Howard (Manchester United, England), Kasey Keller (Tottenham Hotspur, England).
Defenders (7): Gregg Berhalter (Energie Cottbus, Germany), Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham, England), Bobby Convey (Reading, England), Frankie Hejduk (Columbus Crew, Major League Soccer), Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege, Blegium), Eddie Pope (MetroStars, MLS), Tony Sanneh (Columbus, MLS).
Midfielders (7): DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands), Landon Donovan, (San Jose Earthquakes, MLS), Cobi Jones (Los Angeles Galaxy, MLS), Eddie Lewis (Preston North End, England), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado Rapids, MLS), Clint Mathis (Hannover 96, Germany), Kerry Zavagnin (Kansas City Wizards, MLS).
Forwards (4): Conor Casey (FSV Mainz, Germany), Eddie Johnson (Dallas, MLS), Brian McBride (Fulham, England, Josh Wolff (Kansas City, MLS).

Managing editor Gary Davidson contributed to this article.

Robert Wagman is a SoccerTimes senior correspondent. E-mail Robert Wagman.

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