PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) – When it comes to soccer, the United States is now in the same position as England, Italy, Germany and Brazil: It’s expected to make the World Cup.

After missing out on the sport’s showcase event for 40 years, the Americans are close to qualifying for their fifth straight tournament, needing just two wins in their final five qualifiers following Wednesday night’s 3-0 victory over Panama.

“We’ve really put ourselves in a good position now,” said goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who saved the United States several times with his second straight outstanding performance.

At the midpoint of the final round of the North and Central American region, the United States (4-1) has 12 points, one point behind Mexico (4-0-1), and five ahead of Costa Rica (2-2-1).

Guatemala and Trinidad (both 1-3-1) have four points each and Panama (0-2-2) has two. The top three nations qualify, and the fourth goes to a home-and-home playoff against Bahrain, Kuwait or Uzbekistan.

Get ready for beer halls and bratwursts: A trip to next year’s World Cup in Germany is virtually assured.

“Four years ago, we were in that same boat,” midfielder DaMarcus Beasley said. “We lost three in a row. This year, I think we’re more focused.”

In the final round of qualifying for the 2002 tournament, the Americans were 4-0-1 at the midpoint, then skidded despite cautions from coach Bruce Arena not to think too far ahead. They lost 1-0 at Mexico, 3-2 to Honduras at Washington’s RFK Stadium and 2-0 at Costa Rica. Only with a 2-1 win over Jamaica in Foxboro, Mass., in their next-to-last game was a berth clinched.

As they emerged from the visitor’s locker room at Estadio Rommel Fernandez and came through the dimly lit, stifling hot area on the way to their bus, many U.S. players said they had learned from the 2001 experience.

Their second-half schedule is far easier this time, with the Americans playing T&T on Aug. 17 in East Hartford, Conn., and Mexico on Sept. 3 in Columbus, Ohio, before traveling for games at Guatemala on Sept. 7 and Costa Rica on Oct. 8 or 9. The U.S. team finishes at home against Panama on Oct. 12.

“The hardest part of 2002 qualifying is we had some injuries,” said Brian McBride, who scored for the second straight game. “We had a bunch of things happen. And if that happens, Bruce has built a pretty solid group of guys that can come in and do the job. We’re probably a little bit deeper. We have some more experience.”

FIFA’s world rankings reflect the increased strength of the United States, which is tied with Italy for 10th. The Americans advanced to the quarterfinals in the 2002 tournament, their best showing since the first World Cup in 1930. They knocked out Mexico, the longtime leader in the region.

Next up for the American team is the Gold Cup, the regional championship that is played every two years. Several of the players will be given that tournament off, while Arena looks at others farther back in his pool.

After Wednesday’s win, even Arena appeared to be relaxed, wearing a T-shirt that read: “I’m surrounded by idiots.” He said it was given to him by his staff.

But as the next qualifiers approach, they’ll ramp up and try to finish the job of mathematically ensuring a berth.

“We’re not going to make mistake twice,” Beasley said. “We’ve just got to keep mentally focused. Whenever we know when we’re qualified, then that’s when we can relax.”

AP-ES-06-09-05 1800EDT

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