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U.S. men's soccer team ready for huge World Cup qualifying games

With just four games left on the schedule, Friday's home contest against Costa Rica has especially high stakes.

The United States men’s national soccer team is undefeated in four World Cup qualifying games since the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann and the return of Bruce Arena (center) to the helm.
The United States men’s national soccer team is undefeated in four World Cup qualifying games since the dismissal of Jurgen Klinsmann and the return of Bruce Arena (center) to the helm.Read moreEduardo Verdugo

NEW YORK — Every World Cup qualifying game the U.S. men's soccer team plays comes with a sense of urgency, no matter how big or small the opponent. But with just four games left on the schedule, Friday's clash with Costa Rica — one of the biggest teams in the region — has especially high stakes.

"All the work we've put in this year was for these next four games," captain Michael Bradley said Tuesday, as the countdown officially began to the biggest game the U.S. men's team has ever played in the nation's biggest market. "We all understand that getting to a World Cup is pass or fail. … It's our responsibility as players to step on the field and make sure that we find the right ways to do whatever it takes to qualify."

This year's work includes going unbeaten in the last four World Cup qualifying games: draws at Panama and Mexico and home wins over Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago. It is no coincidence to Bradley, and many others, that the streak has come since Jurgen Klinsmann's dismissal and Bruce Arena's return to the helm.

"Bruce and his staff came in and from the beginning found the right way to set the tone, to make sure that all the little things that had come down a few notches were put back to where they needed to be," Bradley said.

But last year's work in qualifying — a home loss to Mexico and a blowout loss at Costa Rica at the end of Klinsmann's tenure — still lingers in the team's collective memory.

Friday's game (6:55 p.m., ESPN and UniMás) at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J., offers a chance to fix that. So does next Tuesday's game at Honduras (5:30 p.m., beIN Sports and NBC Universo). Sweep those, and the Americans will have taken two enormous steps toward reaching next year's big stage in Russia.

"We have to flip one of the results that happened in November," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, who will be playing Friday a few miles from his hometown of North Brunswick, N.J. "For us to get those zero points in those two games early on, we have to find a way to win early on, and I think Honduras would be a great spot — and could put us in a position to either qualify that night, or hopefully the next."

Indeed, if the Americans get a sweep and enough other results go their way, that could clinch them a World Cup berth.

The odds of that happening are slim, though. Last-place Trinidad & Tobago would have to tie Honduras at home and pull off an upset win at Panama.

So for now, the team is keeping its focus on itself.

"We've turned it around in the right ways, and we've got to make sure we finish the job," Bradley said. "I think we have a group of guys who are excited, who realize that the path of this last year has made us stronger and better. Now it's on us to make sure that we can finish the job and allow ourselves a chance to look forward to playing at a World Cup next summer."

That group does not include two injured defenders who would be near-locks for the starting lineup: center back John Brooks and right back DeAndre Yedlin. But Arena isn't worried about his depth chart. After all, he was without key midfielder Fabian Johnson and striker Bobby Wood for the March home game against Honduras, and the Americans stormed to a 6-0 triumph.

"I anticipate this time around, despite the fact that we're going to be missing some big players, our back line will be fine," Arena said. "We've had a lot of experience together in 2017, and I think whatever players we choose to play on Friday will step up and get the job done."