1. Margin for error is gone.
The USA has faced big games in World Cup qualifying before. There is the famous Trinidad & Tobago-USA game in 1989 when Paul Caligiuri sent the USA to the World Cup finals for the first time in 40 years. Like USA-Panama, USA-Jamaica on the ninth matchday of the Hex in 2001 was a must-win. The USA had dropped three games in a row to fall into fourth place. It won, 2-1, thanks to a late Joe-Max Moore penalty kick and unexpectedly qualified when the other results went its way.
The USA won't be celebrating long if it beats Panama on Friday night. Tuesday's game at Trinidad & Tobago may turn out to be a must-win game as well. The USA just doesn't want it to be a must-win game to take fourth place on Tuesday, which would be the case if the USA loses on Friday night.
But for the USA, the Hex has been one pressure game after the other since the two losses in November 2016 forced a coaching change.
“Games don’t get much bigger," said U.S. captain Michael Bradley. "From the get-go in this Hex, we’ve been in a situation where our back has been up against the wall, and we’ve played in games where we need to win, we need points and there’s been a real sense of urgency. Obviously, you get to the end, and our margin for error is virtually gone."
2. USA must jump on Panama early.
That's easier said than done.
In March, the USA overwhelmed Honduras in San Jose with a goal in the first five minutes and three by halftime. It won, 6-0. It had tons of first-half chances against Trinidad & Tobago in June but couldn't break through until a pair of goals by Christian Pulisic in the second half.
In September, Pulisic missed badly on a couple of early chances against Costa Rica and then it all went wrong. The USA couldn't penetrate the Ticos' defense, got cautious in the middle of the first half and paid a huge price when a back pass to Tim Howard set in motion the opening goal by Marco Urena. (Director's hint: focus a camera on Arena for every time a player hits a back pass to the goalie. He will go nuts.)
Which U.S. team will come out against Panama? The team that swept Canaleros in the Hex in 2005 and 2013 or the team tied them in the last four meetings?
“We want to come out flying at the beginning," said Pulisic on Thursday. "We definitely need to get an early goal. We want to start really strong.”
3. All hands on deck.
In the last two two-game series of the Hexagonal, Arena has basically played one team at home and another on the road, making seven lineup changes for both away games.
It's revealing that he said he hasn't given any thoughts about whom he'll switch out at Trinidad & Tobago on Tuesday. He was talking about his goalkeeper situation -- Howard vs. Brad Guzan -- but it could hold for throughout much of the lineup. The USA must get past Panama first.
There are a lot of questions about which players Arena will pick but also how he will line them up. There's been a lot of speculation about whether the USA will shift to a 3-5-2, which it used against Mexico and at the end of the last game at Honduras.
Bradley pointed out that the USA used three in the back a lot differently against Mexico -- when it was set up to contain El Tri and counter -- than at Honduras -- where the USA needed a tying goal.
“Like anything," he added, "tactically you can do anything you want as long as you work on it, as long as things are made clear and guys understand the idea behind it. We have found a good way in some of these moments to have some flexibility, to be able to tweak how we do things, to give ourselves the best chance to be successful, and we’ll see over the next two games how that all comes together.”