The four times the USMNT survived must-win World Cup qualifiers

ISI Photos-Brett Whitesell

The U.S. has a good track record when faced with must-win World Cup qualifiers. Here's how it happened in qualifying for 1934, 1950, 1990 and 2002:

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A loss to Panama isn't going to eliminate the U.S. men’s national team from 2018 World Cup contention, but it would leave the Yanks on the verge of failure, and so Friday's qualifier in Orlando is as close to must-win as a game that isn't must-win can be.

A defeat coupled with a Honduras victory at Costa Rica would leave the U.S. fifth in CONCACAF's qualifying hexagonal and needing on Oct. 10 a victory at Trinidad and Tobago and a Honduran loss at home to Mexico just to get to a playoff against Australia or Syria. El Tri is already through.

1934: United States 4, Mexico 2

Aldo “Buff” Donelli is better known for his exploits on the gridiron, but his brief U.S. national team career --  two games over four days in May 1934 -- was spectacular. The striker from suburban Pittsburgh netted all four goals to send the Yanks into the 16-team field with a last-minute qualifying triumph, then netted their lone strike in a first-round loss to host (and soon-to-be champion) Italy.

Only 13 countries played in the first World Cup four years earlier, including the U.S., which beat Belgium and Paraguay to reach the semifinals, but 32 entries for the second edition meant there'd have to be qualifying. The Great Depression was in full flower by '34 and economic concerns delayed the U.S. Football Association's application. FIFA accepted, but the Yanks would have to beat Mexico, Central America's qualifier, in a Rome showdown to make the field.

Donelli had played college football at Duquesne and would spend nearly three decades as a football coach, including NFL stints with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cleveland Rams. He also was a top amateur soccer player, for Pittsburgh's Curry Silver Tops in 1934, and made Scottish coach David Gould's U.S. roster after a hat trick in one of the tryout games. He was a relatively modern presence, a mobile forward who would go wide or drop into midfield, a rare trait in the static world of the 2-3-5 formation, still dominant outside England.

The Americans enjoyed a private audience with Pope Pius XI on the eve of the May 24 clash at Lazio's Stadio Nazionale del PNF (National Fascist Party's National Stadium), then faced off with Mexico in front of a crowd that included Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and U.S. Ambassador Breckinridge Long. Donelli, who would be inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame 20 years later, fired the U.S. ahead on a 15th-minute goal, restored the lead in the 32nd minute, then tallied twice late in the second half. He also drew a red card that left El Tri down a man for the final half-hour and would have had five goals but for a missed penalty kick.

The U.S. would not beat Mexico again until 1980.

Three days later, the Yanks' World Cup was over. Italy romped, 7-1, to start the knockout tournament behind a hat trick by Angelo Schiavio, who would net the extra-time winner in the final against the Czech Republic. Donelli's goal in the 57th minute trimmed the deficit to two goals, but the Azzurri scored three more times in the next 12 minutes.

1950: United States 5, Cuba 2

The U.S. would not have pulled off the greatest upset in its annals, the 1-0 miracle over England in Belo Horizonte, if not for a September 1949 victory at the second North American Football Confederation Championship in Mexico City. It was the Yanks' only win in the three-team, double round-robin tournament, which served as the region's World Cup qualifiers, and they'd still need help from Mexico to make it to Brazil.

Mexico easily claimed one of the two berths with victories in its first three games, scoring six in each of two romps over the Americans. The second spot was up for grabs when the U.S. and Cuba, which had tied a week earlier, met on Sept. 21 at Club America's Estadio de los Deportes (now Estadio Azul, home to Cruz Azul). The U.S., which wouldn't again qualify for the World Cup for 40 years, would be eliminated with a loss, and a draw would require Mexico to beat Cuba by at least seven goals in the last game four days later.

No problem. The Yanks were sharp and decisive, going ahead, 4-0, as Walter Bahr scored in the 16th minute, John Souza in the 23rd, and Pete Matevich in the 30th and 35th. Jacinto Barquin would put Cuba on the board before halftime, but Frank Wallace netted the fifth three minutes into the second half.

Cuba still controlled its path. It would vault past the Americans on goal difference with a victory over Mexico, which had won the first meeting, 2-0. This time it was 3-0, with Jose Naranjo scoring just before the end of each half and Antonio Flores in the 58th.

Six of the U.S. players against Cuba, including Bahr, Souza and Wallace, would go on to the World Cup and play in the 1-0 shocker over England, although coach Walter Giesler would be replaced by Bill Jeffrey. The 1950 team would be inducted en masse in 1976 into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.

NEXT: The shot heard ‘round the world and the glorious World Cup that almost wasn’t