The United States may have a population that’s 80 times the size of Panama’s, but the two countries have an equal chance of moving closer to a place in next year’s World Cup when they meet Friday in Orlando, Florida.
With two rounds of matches to play in the next few days, Mexico has already claimed one of three automatic berths from the CONCACAF region — North and Central American and the Caribbean. Costa Rica is on the verge of clinching the second.
The other automatic place at next year’s World Cup in Russia will probably go to either Panama or the United States, although Honduras also has a chance. The United States, with its population of about 320 million – compared to Panama’s 4 million, is trying to reach the World Cup for the eighth straight time. Panama is seeking its first appearance on soccer’s biggest stage.
The fourth-place team could also advance if it wins a playoff next month against either Syria or Australia. Here’s a look at each contending country’s prospects. Trinidad and Tobago is already eliminated.
Mexico faces Trinidad and Tobago on Friday, and wraps up on Tuesday with fifth-place Honduras. Despite the opposition, Colombia-born coach Juan Carlos Osorio has called up his top players. Mexico is seeking to stay unbeaten and, perhaps, be a seeded team in Russia.
“This team is very dedicated,” winger Hirving Lozano said. “Our objective is to finish first.”
Mexico leads the standings with 18 points.
The Ticos have 15 points and play at home against Honduras on Friday, and then finish at Panama.
Costa Rica is in if it wins or draws with Honduras. It can also advance — even if it loses — depending on the results of the United States-Panama match.
“We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing. No changes,” midfielder Christian Bolanos said. “That’s given us results. The best way would be to qualify at home.”
Panama has 10 points in third place and can get an automatic berth by winning its last two matches against the Americans and Costa Rica. Panama could even qualify on Friday if it beats the United States and fifth-place Honduras loses to Costa Rica on the same day. However, Panama has never managed a win or draw in qualifying matches in the United States.
The Americans have nine points and will be looking for victories in the last two matches to secure an automatic berth. The Americans finish on Tuesday at eliminated Trinidad and Tobago, giving them a slightly easier path than Panama.
Honduras also has nine points. But it has a -7 goal difference, which is the first tiebreaker. Panama is +2 and the United States is +1. Honduras plays at Costa Rica on Friday and wraps up on Tuesday at home against Mexico.
Carlos Rodriguez in Mexico City contributed.
This story has been corrected to show that Honduras is fifth in the standings, not fourth.