Just as U.S. national soccer team coach Bruce Arena had predicted many months ago, the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup has been riddled with treacherous road trips and perplexing home matches, with erratic officiating and mysterious opponents.

So it's no surprise that the Americans, the overwhelming favorites to win their four-team group and advance to next year's final stage of qualifying, would like to escape this risky round as soon as possible.

They can accomplish that tonight at RFK Stadium, where they'll face Panama in the fifth game on their six-match schedule.

"We don't want to drag it out," veteran defender Eddie Pope said.

A U.S. victory would clinch one of the group's two slots in the final round, but a tie would leave the Americans (2-0-2) needing last-place El Salvador (1-3) to upset host Jamaica (1-1-2) in the other game tonight.

If things don't go its way, the United States would have to settle matters in a Nov. 17 finale against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio.

"It would be nice" to secure a spot tonight, Arena said yesterday following a light workout at RFK. "However, I think this is going to be a heck of a battle and nothing's given. Our team needs to be ready to play and they need to play well."

Panama (1-1-2) probably deserved to win the first encounter between the teams, which ended in a 1-1 tie on Sept. 8 in rainy Panama City. The game was scoreless at the half following several missed opportunities by the U.S. team. The Panamanians dominated the second half, went ahead on Roberto Brown's goal in the 69th minute and should have extended the lead when the U.S. defense began to get caught forward.

But reserve Cobi Jones scored a dramatic equalizer during injury time, putting away a shot by Landon Donovan that had gotten stuck in a puddle in front of the net.

"Their front-runners are a handful," Arena said, referring to Brown, playmaker Julio Medina, forward Julio Dely Valdes and midfielder-forward Ricardo Phillips. "It made for a long evening for us. . . . So far in the competition, they've been as impressive as anyone in the group. They've played extremely well and they've proven they can win on the road" after beating Jamaica in Kingston last month.

Arena went with a three-man defense against El Salvador last weekend, but with Panama's speed and fearlessness on attack, it's unlikely he'll take a similar approach tonight.

Enigmatic midfielder Clint Mathis probably won't get the call tonight after scuffing a clear shot in the first half and sending several passes badly astray in San Salvador.

In addition, defender Cory Gibbs, who started against El Salvador, is suspended for accumulating yellow cards. His spot on the left side will likely be filled by England-based Carlos Bocanegra, who sat out the previous game with a minor hamstring injury.

The American defense will be under the most scrutiny after faulty performances on the road against Panama and Jamaica.

"They're one of those teams that is very scrappy and they get to the second balls -- they thrive on that," Pope said. "They love putting a lot of balls into the box and we've got to play well defensively. . . . It's going to be a huge, huge battle for 90 minutes."

Arena wouldn't reveal his starting lineup, but Manchester United's Tim Howard appears set to start in goal after Kasey Keller got the nod last weekend. The last time the Americans played two games in five days, Howard started at home and the more experienced Keller was the choice on the road.

"Obviously, there are not going to be radical changes," Arena said, "but there will be changes."

U.S. Notes: With a baseball team coming to Washington next year, this could be the final time the American squad plays a major match at RFK.

D.C. United plans to continue playing there, but new scheduling challenges, altered seating arrangements and a disrupted playing surface could end the U.S. team's run in Washington until a proposed soccer stadium is built.

"As long as there isn't an infield here and a pitcher's mound [at RFK tonight], I'm fine with it," Arena joked.

The U.S. team is 9-3-3 at RFK since 1991, but in its last qualifier there, it lost to Honduras, 3-2, three years ago. . . .

The Americans are enjoying an 11-game unbeaten streak (7-0-4), the longest in program history. Their last loss came against the Netherlands, 1-0, in Amsterdam in February. They've also gone 27 straight games without a loss to a regional opponent, dating from a 2-0 loss at Costa Rica in September 2001. . . .

Organizers are anticipating a crowd of about 20,000 tonight and are advising fans to arrive early to avoid rush-hour traffic jams and lines at will-call windows.

U.S.'s Frankie Hejduk, left to right, Clint Mathis, Brian McBride and Josh Wolff celebrate McBride's goal in a win over El Salvador on Oct. 9. The U.S. team can advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a victory over Panama tonight at RFK Stadium.