Preview: Sporting KC trio with U.S. MNT for monumental World Cup qualifier vs. Panama

U.S. Men’s National Team vs. Panama
2018 FIFA World Cup Qualifying | CONCACAF Hexagonal
Friday, Oct. 6 | 6 p.m. CT | ESPN2, Univisión, UDN
Orlando City Stadium | Orlando, Florida

The stakes have never been higher during the current World Cup qualifying cycle.

The U.S. Men's National Team has its back against the wall but destiny in its own hands ahead of Friday's monumental showdown with Panama at Orlando City Stadium. Head coach Bruce Arena's side currently occupies fourth place in CONCACAF's Hexagonal, one point behind Panama, but a victory on Friday followed by a win at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday would assure the U.S. MNT a top-three finish and an eighth consecutive World Cup appearance.

A defeat to Los Canaleros, on the other hand, could prove devastating. 

The top three finishers will advance automatically to the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia next summer, while the fourth-place team will face either Australia or Syria in a two-legged playoff in November with a World Cup berth on the line.

Mexico (Q) 18 5 0 3 11 3 +8
Costa Rica 15 4 1 3 12 5 +7
Panama 10 2 2 4 7 5 +2
United States 9 2 3 3 12 11 +1
Honduras 9 2 3 3 9 16 -7
Trinidad and Tobago 3 1 7 0 4 15 -11

Along for the ride are Matt Besler, Benny Feilhaber and Graham Zusi, making Sporting Kansas City the most represented club on the U.S. MNT's 25-man roster. Besler and Zusi have featured regularly along the American backline throughout 2017, while Feilhaber has earned what many — including himself — have labeled a surprise return to the national team.

Arena said earlier this week that Feilhaber's inclusion was prompted by the midfielder's playmaking abilities in the attacking third, something the U.S. head coach believes his team has lacked in recent months. Should Feilhaber take the field Friday at any point, it would be his first World Cup qualifying appearance since October 2009.

Besler and Zusi, meanwhile, both started in the MNT's 1-1 draw at Honduras on Sept. 5, a vital draw in San Pedro Sula that kept the U.S. ahead of Los Catrachos in the Hexagonal standings on the goal differential tiebreaker. A pedestrian performance from the visitors improved significantly over the final half-hour, resulting in an 85th-minute equalizer from substitute Bobby Wood.

The U.S. entered the month of September in third place, but were leapfrogged in the Hex by an upstart Panama side that topped Trinidad & Tobago 3-0 on Sept. 5. Led by head coach Hernan Dario Gomez, Los Canaleros are desperately seeking the country's first-ever World Cup appearance. A victory in Orlando would secure exactly that.

The Americans hold a decisive 11-1-6 all-time record versus Panama, but the sides have battled to 1-1 draws in each of their last four meetings – three times in Gold Cup action and once in World Cup qualifying.

Friday won't be the first time the U.S. and Panama meet with significant World Cup implications abounding. Four years ago, the MNT dashed Panama's hopes of reaching the World Cup on the final day of the Hex, reversing a 2-1 deficit with two goals in stoppage time. One of which came from Zusi, who landed the nickname "San Zusi" among Mexican fans as the result allowed El Tri to pass Panama for fourth place and subsequently reach the World Cup with a playoff win over New Zealand.

Following Friday's clash, the U.S. will travel to face Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday in their Hexagonal finale at Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva, set for 7 p.m. CT on beIN SPORTS and Universo.

U.S. Roster by Position (Club; WCQ Caps/Goals)

GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC; 15/0), Tim Howard (Colorado Rapids; 37/0), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake; 0/0)

DEFENDERS (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston Dynamo; 35/6), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City; 12/1), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/ENG; 24/2), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca/MEX; 16/0), Michael Orozco (Club Tijuana/MEX; 6/1), Tim Ream (Fulham/ENG; 6/0), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna/MEX; 4/0), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle United/ENG; (8/0), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City; 20/3)

MIDFIELDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas; 5/0), Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution; 0/0), Paul Arriola (D.C. United; 5/1), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union; 9/0), Michael Bradley (Toronto FC/CAN; 38/7), Benny Feilhaber (Sporting Kansas City; 6/0), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire; 0/0), Darlington Nagbe (Portland Timbers; 9/0), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund/GER; 11/5)

FORWARDS (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC/CAN; 39/16), Clint Dempsey (Seattle Sounders FC; 41/18), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose Earthquakes; 0/0), Bobby Wood (Hamburg/GER; 12/4)

Panama Roster by Position (Club)

GOALKEEPERS (2): José Calderón (Marathón/HON), Jaime Penedo (Dynamo Bucharest/ROM)

DEFENDERS (8): Felipe Baloy (Municipal/GUA), Érick Davis (Dunajská Streda/SVK), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls/USA), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo/USA), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls/USA), Luis Ovalle (Deportes Tolima/COL), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders FC), Jan Carlos Vargas (Tauro)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula/MEX), Ricardo Buitrago (Juan Aurich/PER), Armando Cooper (Toronto FC/CAN), Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes/USA), Gabriel Gòmez (Atlético Bucaramanga/COL), José González (Árabe Unido), Alberto Quintero (Universitario/PER)

FORWARDS (5): Abdiel Arroyo (Danubio/URU), Roberto Nurse (Zacatecas), Blas Pérez (Municipal/GUA), Luis Tejada (Universitario/PER), Gabriel Torres (Lausanna-Sport/SUI)