U.S. Team Closes in on World Cup Berth Tonight vs. Panama

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) - For a change the U.S. soccer team can take the easy route. Following an impressive 3-0 victory over Costa Rica the Americans turned their attention to Wednesday night's game at Panama.

With a win the United States would reach that halfway mark of the final round with 12 points needing only one or two more wins to clinch its fifth straight World Cup appearance. And two of its final three home games are against Trinidad and Tobago and Panama the weakest teams in the group.

"We know that if we get another three points then we're pretty close to qualifying for Germany midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said Sunday.

Mexico (3-0-1) leads the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region with 10 points one ahead of the United States (3-1).

Guatemala Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica all are 1-2-1 with four points and Panama (0-2-2) is last with two points. The top three nations qualify for the 32-team field and the fourth-place team goes to a home-and-home playoff with the No. 5 Asian team for another berth.

"If Mexico and U.S. win the next games I think it's going to be pretty clear they're going to be tough to catch U.S. coach Bruce Arena said.

He started three forwards Saturday against Costa Rica and the Americans played aggressively. Landon Donovan scored in the sixth and 62nd minutes for the fourth multigoal game of his international career Kasey Keller made several outstanding saves to preserve the lead early in the second half and Brian McBride added a goal in the 87th.

But the United States has tended to play more conservatively on the road. In qualifying for the 2002 World Cup the U.S. team was 6-1-1 at home and 2-3-3 on the road. Thus far in the 2006 qualifiers the Americans are 5-0-1 at home and 3-1-2 on the road.

"It's just a mental thing Donovan said. "I almost think sometimes teams have this mentality like 'Oh we're going on the road. We should be scared and we should be happy with a point.' It's just strange. But you see the best teams in the world go on the road and could care less. They beat teams handily even on the road and that's where we have to strive to get to."

In the semifinal round last September the Americans got a goal from Cobi Jones in second-half injury time in Panama to escape with a 1-1 tie. A month later they routed Panama 6-0 at Washington's RFK Stadium as Donovan scored the first two goals and Eddie Johnson got the next three.

While the United States is tied for 10th in the FIFA world rankings and Panama is 95th the Panamanians did gain ties at home against Guatemala and Mexico. They lost 2-0 Saturday at Trinidad.

"On the one hand you almost want to sit back and make them make the game because they have to win the game. A tie doesn't do them any good Donovan said. "One of our strongest aspects of our game is counterattacking. And so maybe that plays to our advantage. On the other hand that's kind of playing tentatively."

Notes: F Eddie Johnson (bone bruise on big toe) and D Cory Gibbs (bruised knee) won't make Monday's trip to Panama. D Greg Vanney who didn't dress Saturday will be on squad.