Analysis

The five foes who could crush the USMNT’s World Cup hopes

Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The United States' World Cup hopes will be granted or destroyed in the next week. If the U.S. doesn't make it, it will likely be because of one of these five men.

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Kevin Molino, Trinidad and Tobago

Trinidad and Tobago's attack is governed by the Minnesota United playmaker, a thrillingly skilled and versatile player capable of winning games on his own. That's not news to Bruce Arena or his charges, who have seen Molino dominate on the right flank for Orlando City, for which he scored 11 goals with eight assists last year, and run the Loons' improving offense in its inaugural campaign. Minnesota United coach Adrian Heath, who spent nearly six full seasons with Molino in Orlando, considers him the best attacking midfielder in MLS. That's enormous praise, considering the competition.

Molino is just as vital for T&T, which has struggled to contend during the hex and have tallied just twice in its last five qualifiers, all of them losses. Molino scores plenty for a No. 10 -- he has 18 goals in 41 international games, 10th on the all-time Soca Warriors list and just one behind Dwight Yorke's total -- but there's only so much up top, and much of his creative work goes for naught. Should he take things into his own hands, he can cause problems. If anyone in either of these games can beat the U.S. on his own, it's probably Molino.

Gabriel Torres, Panama

Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY NETWORK

Andrew Nelles-USA TODAY NETWORK

Panama has some wonderful attacking talent, with Torres and Luis Tejada and Blas Perez for starters, but the team doesn't score a lot of goals. All of the Canaleros' Hex outings except September's 3-0 rout of Trinidad and Tobago have been decided by a goal or less, and their success relies on timely finishing as much as staunch defensive play. If a goal's to be got, Torres is the likeliest candidate to put it away.

The 28-year-old Lausanne-Sport striker's speed, skill and mobility can be a handful for opposing defenses, especially when playing off Perez or, as occurs less often, Tejada. The former Colorado Rapids Designated Player has 13 goals in 63 games for Panama, two of them game-winners during 2018 qualifying. His best was an astonishing five-touch, 75-yard sprint past two defenders to open the account against T&T.

If he finds space in or near the box, turns a defender, or receives a spot-on feed from Perez, Torres can knock the U.S. down and maybe out.

Jaime Penedo, Panama

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

The former LA Galaxy goalkeeper has been Panama's No. 1 -- and among CONCACAF's best -- for nearly a decade and a half, and he has posted shutouts in six of the 10 qualifiers he's played this cycle. He is a superb shot-stopper who is coming off a penalty-kick save in Dinamo Bucharest's 1-0 derby loss to Steaua, but he's prone to costly lapses. Nonetheless, he's a big-game performer, and this would be the biggest game the Canaleros have ever played if they win.

Penedo, 36, missed the September's qualifiers while injured, and backup Jose Calderon has been in strong form at Marathon in Honduras, so head coach Hernan Dario Gomez has options, although the wise money is on experience. Panama is organized and stringent defensively, and this is the last go for its golden generation. With Penedo at the back, stealing three points is doable.

Joevin Jones, Trinidad and Tobago

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. knows well what it's facing in the Seattle Sounders' left-sider, whose productive three-year stretch in MLS closes this season with a move to Bundesliga 2 side SV Darmstadt slated for January. He played a sizable role as the Sounders marched to last year's MLS Cup title and emerged this season among the league's finest left backs. He's matured greatly defensively while evolving into a game-changer from the left flank.

He has 11 assists this season, the most in MLS by a non-attacking midfielder, and might be better suited for his role on the left side of midfield with Trinidad and Tobago. He has all the requisite tools and a knack for delivering the right ball at the right pace at the right time. He leads the Soca Warriors with five (of their 17) qualifying goals, and although the attack hasn't achieved much since the Hexagonal began, if he gets free -- more so if in tandem with Molino or Kenwyne Jones -- T&T can be deadly.

Felipe Baloy, Panama

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Seattle's Roman Torres is dominant in central defense for Panama, but his status -- whether he can play and with how much effectiveness -- is uncertain after he left the Sounders' romp over Vancouver a week ago due to injury and missed Sunday's loss at Philadelphia. There's been no word since, and Panama's not going to say anything until it submits its lineup. However it plays out, Baloy is the key figure at the back.

The Canaleros' 36-year-old captain is a savvy center back with the strength to neutralize big forwards and smarts to handle nearly anything. He's lost a step with age, but his positioning and ability to organize a defense are among the best in the region, and he's got an experienced and capable crew to work with. Panama will look to clog the channels, close off space and counter when the opportunity presents itself, and if he's on his game, that could provide a path to Russia.

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