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U.S. counting on Orlando to deliver much-needed home-field advantage vs. Panama

ESPN FC's crew in Orlando discuss the biggest story lines ahead of Friday's qualifier against Panama.
Stewart Robson questions Bruce Arena's management of the U.S. ahead of two crucial matches to end World Cup Qualifying.
Benny Feilhaber says he was shocked to get called up for the United States' final two World Cup Qualifying matches.

ORLANDO -- With the U.S. national team set to play a mammoth World Cup qualifier Friday against Panama, the issue of home-field advantage is still very much on the collective mind of the U.S. team.

Last month, the U.S. played Costa Rica at Red Bull Arena, and in the run-up there was concern that playing the game in the New York metropolitan area would allow plenty of Tico fans to attend and blunt whatever home-field advantage the U.S. had. The U.S. team's worst fears were realized. It ended up losing 2-0, with the Ticos' fans in full voice at the final whistle.

In many respects this was nothing new. The game in the U.S. has come a long way, and it can now expect majority support for its home matches. But given the diversity in the U.S., it's still not unusual for opposing fans to make up a sizable contingent of those in attendance. What was different in this case was that the U.S. lost, imperiling the team's World Cup qualification hopes. And the match left it in something of a mental quandary. The Americans didn't want to use the venue as an excuse for the defeat. Prior to the 1-1 tie with Honduras, U.S. coach Bruce Arena said during a roundtable with reporters, "I don't think it made any difference in the game."

But he also said, "I don't think we should play in a venue that's comfortable for the visiting team," indicating that the U.S. didn't maximize the home-field advantage it could have had. Arena added that the USSF needed to be "shrewd" in terms of its venue selection.

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"It probably makes a difference for Costa Rica," he said. "Imagine if we were playing this game [against Honduras] in Dallas or San Diego. It would be nicer for us, even though it's not a good analogy because we're playing in our country. We don't get any luxuries in going on the road and [where] everything is nice and comfortable; we get a good fan base coming out for the game and all of that."

It's a sensitive subject in USSF circles, in that no one else in the organization wants to take shots at those who selected the venue. To be fair, there are a lot of moving parts in deciding where the U.S. plays, and the decisions are made far in advance, so far in fact that the decision to play at Red Bull Arena was made before Arena was hired last November.

According to the USSF, the factors in venue selection include "availability of the venue, what other events the venue may or will have going on (you want the field condition to be as good as possible), the type of surface, size of the field, seating capacity, number of locker rooms, infrastructure available for broadcaster partners and working media, demographics in the metro area, cost of the venue, expected demand for tickets sales, level of U.S. support, time of game - which includes working with broadcasters -- competing events in the market, how many times we've played in the city or region recently, the climate that time of year, the ease of travel in and out of the venue, and more."

In terms of ticket sales, the USSF tries to make sure most of the tickets end up in the hands of supporters, but of course, there is nothing to stop those from being resold on the secondary market and ending up in the hands of visiting supporters.

So ahead of Friday's match at Orlando City Stadium -- one that is essentially a must-win -- and with the Costa Rica result in mind, Arena made a request to local fans that sounded borderline desperate.

Costa Rica celeb fans
After Costa Rican fans out-voiced U.S. fans at Red Bull Arena, the USMNT are pleading for Orlando to deliver a true home-field advantage.

"I'm going to make a plea to the people in Orlando: We need you out supporting the U.S. team," Arena told the Orlando Sentinel. "I think the last time out in New York, we didn't have the kind of venue that we need to have in these games. That's important. Hopefully we have a crowd that is very supportive of the U.S. team and they can maybe drown out the supporters of the visiting team if that's the case."

Fortunately for the U.S., Orlando City supporters have a reputation as being among the most passionate in MLS. The standing supporters section known as "The Wall" is particularly vociferous. The question of course is whether that can be replicated for a national team game.

"I think the support we are going to receive on Friday will be fantastic," said U.S. midfielder Dax McCarty, a native of nearby Winter Park. "Soccer fans in the south, specifically Orlando City and Atlanta United fans, have proven this year to be some of the most passionate fans in the United States. We know that everyone is well aware of how big this game is, and we are expecting tremendous support from the first whistle until the last."

Sean Levy, the president of the Orlando chapter of the American Outlaws, stopped short of saying the atmosphere would be identical to an Orlando City match given the diverse backgrounds and international loyalties that comprise the club's fan base. But he also sounded optimistic that Orlando will deliver the atmosphere the U.S. team craves.

U.S. World Cup qualifying chances
Anything short of a win vs. Panama and the U.S.'s chances of qualifying for the World Cup decrease dramatically.

"I believe it's going to be a good crowd just because of how important this game is," he said via telephone. "I think we can try our best to match the atmosphere that you see at an Orlando City game. Everyone knows it's a must-win game and will bring their voice and definitely push the U.S. on to a win.

"I've been to a lot of stadiums traveling with the American Outlaws and for Orlando City games. With The Wall, I just don't think there's any other stadium like ours out there. Being in The Wall is amazing."

Of course, one somewhat overlooked aspect of the Costa Rica match is that the U.S. team didn't give its fans much to cheer about on the night. The Ticos took the lead in the 30th minute and maintained their grip on the game for the rest of the night. So does the crowd drive success on the field, or is it the responsibility of the team to give the fans something to celebrate? McCarty said they go hand-in-hand.

"The onus is definitely on a team to give the crowd a reason to scream, stand, and clap, but in tough moments during the game, the crowd is the X factor most of the time," he said via email. "When you're tired and trying to close a game out, nothing is better than hearing the fans get loud and push you to either make a big defensive stand or score a last-minute game winner." 

Given the stakes involved, that is a scenario the U.S. will gladly take.

Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.

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