Though the USMNT could already secure a spot in the World Cup as early as Sunday night depending on other results, keeper Zack Steffen is focused on the immediate task at hand, namely beating Panama.
After Thursday’s draw in Mexico City’s Azteca stadium, Steffen and his teammates are now on the cusp of securing their spot for the final tournament in Qatar, however will need the result of Costa Rica’s visit to El Salvador to work in their favor to already clinch one of the top-three spots for automatic qualification.
In his pre-game comments to the press, Steffen was insistent that while aware of this bigger picture, both he and his teammates are laser-focused on avoiding any unnecessary slip-ups against a foe that already beat them once in this qualifying cycle.
“It’s going to be tough,” Steffen admitted of his expectations against the Panamanians. “Every qualifying game in CONCACAF is tough.
“We know what it’s going to take to get points and to take that next step towards qualifying. It’s just about going out there and executing, sticking together and working for each other, and just communicating.”
With their visitors having their backs against the wall, and in a position to be entirely eliminated with a draw or loss, Steffen is relishing the challenge of butting heads with an equally motivated opponent, albeit with one major advantage – the home crowd in Orlando – on the Americans’ side.
“We know that [Panama is] going to come to get three points, and we’re coming to get three points on our home turf with our fans, so we’re excited for the challenge.”
Prior to kickoff, the team will already know the result of Costa Rica’s earlier game, and should the Ticos fail to win, will know exactly which result might push them over the line. Any pressure that comes with this knowledge is something the 26 year-old insists he and his teammates will push to the back of their heads as they execute the gameplan which is already set before them.
“I would say every game comes with different pressure,” he mused, avoiding directly referencing the specific potentiality that might arise on Sunday. “Of course we feel it [and] we’re aware of our emotions going into it.”
“It’s just about putting those on the back burner, going out there and playing the game that we’ve been playing for our whole lives, sticking together, using one another to stay in the moment, [focusing] on our gameplan, and [executing] as well as we can.”
Getting back to the main point, he is still clear on the goal of the team, and does not see failure to give themselves the best chance as any acceptable option. “We hope to qualify for the World Cup [on Sunday]. All we’re focusing on is getting three points. It’s mandatory at home.”
A major concern for Gregg Berhalter’s team heading into this window has been the mounting list of injured players, including several starters and standard options off the bench. Added to that, two more starters from the previous game in Mexico City are excluded on Sunday due to yellow card suspensions.
Despite the large number of key absences, the Manchester City player points to the way that the depth of the player pool has been integrated into the team during the cycle as a key that will minimize any disruptions – both on Sunday and generally moving forward.
“It’s been a long road qualifying, a lot of games and a lot of different camps. Guys have injuries and different guys are called in all the time.”
“I think we have a very good camaraderie in terms of whoever gets called kind of steps up and does their job,” he continued. “We have a lot of depth, and you guys have seen that in the qualifying games. It’s exactly what we need and that’s exactly why we’re here.”
“We all want to win, we all want to compete, we all want to play, we all want to qualify for the World Cup, so we’re willing to do what whatever it takes.”
Apart from the quality and depth of players surrounding him on the field, the former Columbus Crew keeper also points out the impact of the fans in the stadium as something that pushes the team in their tough moments.
“I heard our fans,” he grinned in reference to the crowd of US supporters in Azteca on Thursday. “They’re always spectacular and passionate. We need that energy because it definitely gives us energy and motivation too when we’re tired and sometimes weathering the storm.”
As announced by US Soccer in the pre-game press conference, Sunday’s game in Orlando’s 25,000+ capacity Exploria Stadium is officially sold out.
The game against Panama, the final home game of this qualifying cycle for the USMNT, will kick off at 7pm Eastern time.