After Dominant Performance, US Look to Upend Testy, Desperate Panama: The TYAC Preview

Clint Dempsey’s return to the US- and hat trick- helped the US get back on track. Can they build on that momentum in Panama?

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon

Following a dominant 6-0 win over Honduras Friday night, the United States continue World Cup qualifying Tuesday night on the road in Panama (10PM ET, BEIN SPORTS). 

Friday night’s match signaled the triumphant return of Bruce Arena as US manager, and saw, behind the dazzling play of Darlington Nagbe, Christian Pulisic, Jozy Altidore and a rejuvenated Clint Dempsey, the Americans attack a team designed and tactically deployed to defend with verve, gusto and precision. It was a victory, above all, 

The US made their way to San Jose simply hoping to revive a floundering World Cup campaign on the brink of catastrophe. They left rejuvenated and, for the moment, appearing formidable. To paraphrase Doc Holliday from Tombstone: it wasn’t a revival the US were after; it was a reckoning. 

And yet, for all the merit in the press plaudits of US play Friday evening, there’s also the reality: at bottom, the United States did precisely what they should do at home in World Cup qualifying. They won. That they did it with panache and brio is wonderful for the fans, but so are slam dunks. Dunks are worth the same amount of points as off-balance jump shots. And Oguchi Onyewu once told TYAC: “Three points is three points.”

What the US do in Panama Tuesday night will define this two game qualifying break far more than earning the three points teams that tend to qualify for the World Cup tend to earn in home qualifiers. 

The Americans will, and should, arrive in Panama a confident group. But they’ll need to play well to win and avoid simple mistakes to draw. 

Panama enter the match coming off a disappointing 1-0 loss at Trinidad and Tobago. And yet, thanks to sharp performances in a victory in November at Honduras and a home draw to Mexico, Los Canaleros still sit in third place in the final round Hexagonal.

Panama will also benefit from the added motivation of avenging the last World Cup qualifying meeting between these two countries, when the Americans scored two goals in the game’s waning moments to eliminate the Dely Valdes’ brothers team from the competition, rescuing Mexico’s all but officially doomed World Cup hopes in the process. The Panamanians remember how close they were to becoming one of the smallest nations ever to qualify for the World Cup. And while this Panama team has some different faces and a new manager, the ability to halt American momentum and create separation for themselves in the standings is a terrific opportunity. 

Add Panama’s motivations to the forever hot and humid Panama City weather, a traditionally hostile CONCACAF road environment and a venue where Panama have lost only once in a year, and you begin to understand that Tuesday night will not be simple. Road matches in CONCACAF qualifying never are. They are grinding, physical, choppy, often brutish affairs. The US veterans, battle-scarred from the trips to the cauldrons of CONCACAF’s past, know this. But will those battle scars influence and help a side relying increasingly on a younger group of stars?

It’s a question without an answer until the wee hours of Wednesday morning. 

The traditional TYAC preview then. Usuals. Then particulars.

Series: 17th Meeting. The United States lead 11-1-4. The Americans are 3-0-1 in Panama as well, making it the only road venue in this year’s CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal where the US haven’t lost. The Americans lone loss to Panama came on US soil, a group stage defeat in Tampa in the 2011 Gold Cup. The Americans avenged that loss, with help from a master-class Freddy Adu (read that sentence again three or four times, for fun, ok?) in the knockout rounds, setting up a stylish Gold Cup final with Mexico, which El Tri won, 4-2. 

Weather: Hot, muggy, like playing a game near a canal on the equator. 85 or so at kickoff, humidity around 88. After the pleasant temperatures of San Jose, the cooler than usual March across much of the United States and the still lingering impact of winter in Europe: the Americans undoubtedly will need to adjust to the weather.

It’s another thing that makes these road fixtures difficult, Jermaine Jones told the media this week. “It’s hot, muggy, loud and harder to see. You have to adjust to that, but it is definitely a factor. It makes the road games that much more difficult. But we’ve done it before and we know we can win there.”

Anibal Godoy has helped Panama to a third place start in the HEX through three games.

Neil W. Blackmon on What To Watch For From Panama:

The Colombian Hernán Darío Gómez took over for the Dely Valdes brothers, who were fired after Panama’s failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup. The termination of the innovative Dely Valdes brothers was controversial. On the one hand, it seemed harsh, given the progress made by The Canal Men under their stewardship. On the other hand, with progress comes heightened expectations, and the Panamanian Football Association felt it needed a new face to take Panama over the final hurdle and into a World Cup finals.

Enter Hernán Darío Gómez, the Medellín paisa with a proven record of leading nations to their first World Cup, having done the deed with Ecuador in 2002. That accomplishment still means he doesn’t pay for drinks when he’s in Ecuador, and it helped him earn the Colombia job following that nation’s failure to qualify for the 2010 World Cup, a venture that was cut short due before he could guide his homeland to a World Cup. Gomez resigned under massive political pressure after he attacked a woman outside a bar in Bogota, and appeared to be finished with coaching internationally until given a chance by Panama in the autumn of 2014.

So far, so good. Maintaining the “controlled chaos” pressure defense the Dely Valdes brothers utilized to great success, but fusing that hard-nosed defensive mentality with a few of his own possession-based attacking principles, Gómez rolled his way to four points in the HEX and CONCACAF coach of the year honors in 2016. 

Especially at home, Gómez has set Los Canaleros up to attack, hurling bodies forward in transition and pushing his wingers very high up the pitch, especially on the break. Despite a retained emphasis on core defensive integrity, the tactical switches are much different from the nine behind the ball and break “chaos” of Dely Valdes. Not only does the manager ask both his wings to play on either flank, meaning mid-game switches are possible,  Gómez  has sometimes used them very high up against the opposition fullbacks, making a 4-3-3. At other points, he has brought them back alongside the two central midfielders, meaning more of a 4-1-4-1.

One thing is certain with Panama: the positioning of the wingers dictate how aggressive they intend to be at any given time. 

Panama’s Edgar Barcenas, left, fights for the ball with Mexico’s Miguel Layun during a 2018 World Cup qualifying soccer match in Panama CIty, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2016. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

Against Mexico, it was deeper, much more of a 4-1-4-1 that at times morphed to a flatter 4-4-2. The effect was still terrific, as on breaks it as Alberto Quintero or opposite winger Édgar  Bárcenas giving El Tri the business. But Panama were more reluctant to fly forward in that match, and its probably a better window into how they’ll approach the United States.

Friday night against Panama, the wingers were high in more of a 4-3-3, with San Jose Earthquakes man Anibal Godoy pinched in behind Quintero and Bárcenas ahead of Toronto’s pacy Armando Cooper. This formation generated good possession and opportunities to pump in crosses and diagonals against the Trinidad and Tobago defense, but it left gaps for the Soca Warriors to exploit centrally, which Kevin Molino did on the game-winning goal. With gap-busters like Darlington Nagbe and Christian Pulisic on the pitch for the red, white and blue, Gómez may opt for more narrow, deeply situated flanks. 

Either way, Panama will defend. They’ve conceded only twice at home in a year, both with less than full sides at the Copa Centroamericana, and Los Canaleros continue to have one of CONCACAF’s most physically imposing CB duos in the ageless Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres. This is the last go round for that pairing, but they’ve been steady in conceding only a solitary goal thus far in the Hex. Adolfo Machado of the Dynamo will start at one fullback position, and Fidel Escobar, a young technically gifted player with Sporting CP, adds depth and has played a great deal for Gómez since making his debut against the US in 2015.

Jon Levy on What to Watch For From The United States:

This has to be a sobering section after the pounding the Yanks put on Honduras Friday night. I mean, even if they go to Panama and win by a couple goals, that’s still not the Neymar-Suarez-Messi first-season-at-Barca machine gun treatment we saw out of the Stars and Stripes last time out. So while the team scored a knockout punch that was needed in both morale and the standings, it’s time to move on to the tricky task of beating Panama in Panama. NOTE: Another Graham Zusi late equalizer isn’t a given, and no Panamanian will have forgiven or forgotten that indignity.

The obvious way to move on from the euphoria of that big win over Honduras is to run the list of squad changes.

We had a lot for a three day period between matches. Sebastian Lletget scored the opener for the US on Friday, but he’s been sent back to LA with that foot injury he suffered shortly after scoring. And starting center back John Brooks is back in Berlin with what the team is calling a sinus infection. Meanwhile, I guess Bruce Arena saw his team score enough goals without Jordan Morris to justify not even risking the young striker in the upcoming match. And Michael Orozco’s been sent back to Tijuana with a knee injury of some sort.

But take heart USMNT fan, a couple reinforcements have been made available. Tijuana is full of Americans, so upon receipt of Orozco, they let new Yanks Are Coming mascot Paul Arriola come to Panama! Paul might not start, but he’ll have the best haircut and most attacking energy/optimism/flair for as long as he’s on the pitch.

And Jermaine Jones is back from suspension, so there’s different sort of energy that Arena might be looking for in his changes to the team sheet. And while they’re not new additions to the squad, I expect Kellyn Acosta and Matt Besler to play against Panama. Acosta’s just playing too well to ignore right now, and, well, it feels like Matt Besler o’clock; he’s due for a start per-his stop-start relationship with the national team. Even if Besler doesn’t play, one would think DaMarcus Beasley was brought to this camp for more than just savvy veteran leadership, and the decision to play Villafana 90 minutes in San Jose hints that the legend that is Run DMB will be starting a meaningful World Cup qualifier for the United States of America in 2017. If you had money on that in Vegas, you’ve paid your loans off and are ready to invest in Prestige Worldwide.

But for all the changes that we could see, and Bruce Arena has indicated there will be a lot of them, I expect the starting strike-force to remain the same. You simply can’t pull Dempsey or Pulisic after those performances, and even if I were open to entertaining a theory about Altidore playing little part in the six-goal destruction of Honduras (which I’m not), who else ya got? Conventional old-school English soccer wisdom dictates you don’t change a winning side, and while that’s clearly not an option here, I expect Bruce to do his best to at least keep the red-hot attack intact.

An American sensation was born Friday night.

Neil W. Blackmon on the US Player to Watch: Christian Pulisic, Borussia Dortmund

So, he’s pretty good, then, I guess?

While Pulisic’s World Cup qualifying debut came under Jurgen Klinsmann in Jacksonville last September, his “I’m here and I’m a force” announcement to CONCACAF came Friday night in San Jose. The youngster was quite literally everywhere, given an extraordinary amount of room to roam from a manager who has always done a brilliant job of putting his best attacking players in optimal positions to succeed, from Claudio Reyna and John O’Brien to Landon Donovan to Gyasi Zardes to Robbie Keane. 

Against Honduras, Pulisic was at least in formation-only placed at the point of the diamond, as the traditional number ten behind the strikers Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore. He was flanked beautifully by Darlington Nagbe and Sebastian Lletget early on, and Alejandro Bedoya capably deputized when Lletget was hurt early in the match.

Given freedom to move between the gaps and lines and create, Pulisic found space behind the strikers, found gaps running off overloads, and made several diagonal and vertical runs beyond the American forwards. He was, as they say, the straw that stirred the drink. It’s here I should note that Darlington Nagbe was doing this with a defense worried about Pulisic and Clint Dempsey, which is perfectly horrifying and precisely the point:

And this raises two larger points. First, imagine how well this hums when the best player on the team, Fabian Johnson is back to tend to an American wing with Pulisic. 

And two- and perhaps most remarkably- Pulisic, already a proven contributor in the Champions League, was at eighteen trusted by Bruce Arena, who has coached a team in the World Cup quarterfinals, to guide an attack trying to save a World Cup campaign. If that doesn’t tell you the kind of talent we’re dealing with here, well, what will?

Pulisic scored too:

But it’s what he did to set up teammates and break up defenses set up to demand the US make creative plays between the lines, that is so enchanting. 

Tuesday night, in Panama, the age old soccer question is answered:

Jon Levy on the Panama Player to Watch: Edgar Barcenas (Tapachula)

We’ve been looking for a sign that Panama is well and truly on the way out of the Dely Valdéz era, and on the way into the Hernán Darío Gómez future. Yeah, three years into his tenure we’re still looking for that sign. And when he starts a team that consists of as many Dely Vadléz holdovers and dudes on the wrong side of thirty as he did on Friday, Mr. Gómez further validates this search for his signature on the team.

But attacking midfielder Edgar Bárcenas represents a new offensive threat for Panama.

Bárcenas is twenty three, and seems to be on a sadly familiar path for talented Panamanian midfielders at club level. Like Alberto Quintero, Bárcenas is playing for clubs that he just might be too good for. But unlike Quintero, Bárcenas still has plenty of time to turn that around. Right now he’s on loan from Panama’s Arabe Unido to Tapachula in Mexico’s second division. Our boy Alberto knows all about that league. But Bárcenas could be hell for the Yanks on Tuesday night if he starts really emulating Quintero for the national team, where the winger has consistently given the US (and the rest of CONCACAF) fits.

Given his performance on Friday night against Trinidad & Tobago, young Edgar seems to be trending in that direction. He tested the Soca Warriors’ keeper on multiple occasions, and still could have scored had he held his nerve on a volleyed chance shortly after halftime. In the end, T & T beat Panama one-nil, and Bárcenas was lifted for the veteran Gabriel Torres in the 64th minute, but that could just mean Gómez is resting Edgar for the USMNT match. On a team the US knows so well, Edgar Bárcenas’ status as a lesser-known commodity could grant him freedom enough to do real damage on Tuesday night. Word to whoever Bruce starts in defense.

Prediction: USA 2, Panama 0. The thinking here is the Americans are about to go on a bit of a run for a few months. Panama will play testy football, but sometimes you just run into a buzzsaw. The US #Get3More and head to the summer feeling positive about their chances of qualifying for Russia 2018.

Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow them on Twitter @nwblackmon and @TYAC_Jon.