PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) – Even Mariano Rivera knows there’s been a change back home in Panama.

“Baseball was the most popular at the beginning, but now – ain’t no more,” the New York Yankees star reliever said last weekend. “Soccer is No. 1.”

Panama’s soccer team will be in the spotlight tonight when it plays the United States, which would move close to a fifth straight World Cup appearance with a victory.

Following Saturday’s 3-0 win over Costa Rica in Salt Lake City, the U.S. team (3-1) has nine points, one behind first-place Mexico (3-0-1) but five points ahead of Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago and Costa Rica (all 1-2-1).

A victory over last-place Panama (0-2-2) would give the Americans 12 points at the halfway point of the final round of the North and Central American and Caribbean region.

They would be in commanding position to claim one of the region’s three berths in next year’s tournament, especially with home games remaining against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.

While the United States is tied for 10th in the FIFA world rankings and Panama is 95th, the Central Americans have been tough at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, where the lighting is poor and the field can be muddy, especially during the frequent evening thunderstorms.

“If we’re overconfident, we’re completely stupid,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said Tuesday.

In its previous two home games in the final round, Panama played a 0-0 tie against Guatemala and a 1-1 tie against Mexico, getting a tying goal on Luis Tejada’s scissors kick in the 74th minute. The Panamanians outplayed the Americans in a 1-1 tie last September, then lost 6-0 at Washington the following month.

Panama is coming off a 2-0 defeat Saturday at Trinidad and Tobago and a long trip home. The team went to Miami and got stuck there before reaching Panama City on Monday.

“The dream is still there,” midfielder Julio Medina said. “We’re facing a real tough game, but the Americans are not invincible.”

When the United States played in Panama last year, much of the field turned to mud during a second-half downpour. Cobi Jones scored the tying goal in second-half injury time, getting the ball when Landon Donovan’s shot attempt on the soggy surface spun toward him instead of the goal.

“That’s the worst I’ve played in,” Donovan said. “It’s a different game.”

It’s not about finesse and skill, it’s just about being rugged and rolling up your sleeves and who’s going to win the most, I guess, confrontations on the field. That’s unfortunate for us, but they have to deal with it, too.”

Brian McBride said rain would slow the pace of the game.

“Most likely it will probably get a little more sloppy, because the ball’s going to have to be in the air a lot more,” he said.

Roberto Brown leads the Panamanians with six goals in qualifying, including one against goalkeeper Kasey Keller that put Panama ahead in the 69th minute last September.

“We need to be very focused and have the initiative,” Brown said.

But Brown may not start. On Saturday, Jose Luis Garces replaced him when the second half began.

No matter the lineup, Arena expects play to get physical.

“There’s going to be some wild tackles,” he said. “They’re a little bit of an inexperienced team.”

Notes: There will not be a live telecast in the United States. The game starts at 9:30 p.m. EDT, Telemundo will televise it at 11:30 p.m. EDT, and ESPN2 will broadcast it at 1 a.m. EDT Thursday. … Arena said D Oguchi Onyewu, still recovering from a knee injury, probably won’t play. … Mexico hosts Trinidad and Tobago, and Costa Rica is at home against Guatemala.

Associated Press Writers Dave Campbell and Juan Zamorano contributed to this report

AP-ES-06-07-05 1841EDT

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