The United States men's national soccer team is about to play two of its most important games ever — with at least $10 million on the line.
The U.S. takes on Panama in Orlando Friday night, then travels abroad to play Trinidad and Tobago Tuesday.
The United States needs to do well enough to finish in third place in its regional conference, known as CONCACAF. If the U.S. finishes in fourth, it has to play an international play-off match in November in order to qualify for the World Cup in Russia in 2018. A worse than fourth place finish means the end of one of the best soccer streaks in international history.
"We are very proud that we've qualified for every World Cup since 1990. There aren't a lot of teams that can say that" said Sunil Gulati, president of the United States Soccer Federation, in a telephone interview with CNBC. "This would be eight straight cups."
Despite perhaps getting less credit than it deserves, the U.S. national program has had a tremendous record in international play, qualifying for every World Cup dating back to 1990 — the tournament is held every four years. Only Brazil, Germany, Italy, Argentina, Spain and South Korea have fared better.
FIFA's new, sweeter pot
The big money awarded to the 32 qualifying teams of the World Cup gets even bigger this year. FIFA, soccer's governing body, will award a record $400 million dollars in prize money next year. That's 12 percent higher than the $358 million awarded to teams at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A special FIFA committee will decide before the end of the year how to divide the money.
Even the lower tier prize would be significant for the U.S. Soccer Federation which reported $77 million dollars in revenue in 2014, the year of the last World Cup, according to tax filings.
Competition off the field
Beyond the drama and intensity of the two crucial matches for the United States on October 6 and 10, the U.S. Soccer Federation is also nearing an election for the leadership of the non-profit organization.
Gulati, who teaches economics at Columbia University, has held the unpaid presidency of the U.S. Soccer Federation since 2006. He has not announced whether he'll run for a fourth term in February. However, insiders at the U.S. Soccer Federation believe he will, and that he's likely to win.
Like any leader of a large organization, Gulati has detractors. Boston attorney Steve Gans intends to run against Gulati for U.S. soccer's top job this coming winter.
"Changes are needed at many levels," said Gans, who played soccer in college and has represented international soccer clubs throughout part of his legal career.
Gans was especially critical of Gulati's decision to award former coach Jurgen Klinsmann a four-year contract before the last World Cup. The U.S. team stumbled at the start of the 2018 qualifying matches, and Klinsmann was fired.
Gulati and the United States Soccer Federation are in the process of trying to bring the World Cup back to the United States in 2026, in a joint bid with Mexico and Canada. Matches would be played in all three nations. The 2022 tournament is set for Qatar.