Neil W. Blackmon and Jon Levy
The United States Men’s National team will play a World Cup qualifier Friday night (7PM, ESPN) against Panama at Orlando City Stadium, a beautiful new soccer-specific building that stands as testament to just how far the game has come in the United States in only a generation.
In that game Friday night, the United States Men’s National team will also play for their World Cup lives, a cruel testament to the reality that as soccer in this corner of the world improves, it becomes increasingly difficult to qualify for the World Cup, even in a “forgiving region” like CONCACAF.
Win, and the US dreams of Russia lives on, lurching into Trinidad early next week with a chance to seal the deal. Draw or tie, and the US will enter Trinidad and Tobago on life support, needing a victory and help to stave off elimination altogether.
It’s an almost unthinkable scenario. But after Mexico’s narrow escape in 2014, and the struggle this cycle to simply reach the Hex under Jurgen Klinsmann, maybe it shouldn’t be.
“We’ve taken it for granted, in the past,” former US captain Carlos Bocanegra told TYAC this summer. “The US isn’t entitled to qualify for the World Cup. There are challenges and adversity and you have to go and do it.”
For the United States, winners of the last three Hexagonal rounds, qualifying for Russia has been a brutal journey to date.
The Americans sit fourth, in position to secure only a playoff spot, entering Friday night’s match.
Gone is the streak of “dos a cero” victories over Mexico in Columbus, the source of so much American pride and schadenfreude. And lost to a Rafa Marquez goal late, no less, in a 2-1 defeat.
Gone is the aura of invincibility in other home matches too, as the US have dropped two home fixtures in this Hex alone.
Gone is the sense that no matter how much talent Mexico had, no matter how cohesively Costa Rica played, the US were the class “team” in the region, as evidenced by cycle after cycle of results.
All that remains is a team on the edge of a colossal failure, one that would ripple through American soccer as a whole and potentially limit the seemingly exponential growth of the sport in America.
If you think soccer in America is a train moving downhill, a tidal wave of momentum and organic energy that can’t be stalled, you haven’t considered what happens if a World Cup occurs without the Americans involved.
Yes, the game would recover. But undoubtedly, it changes the stakes.
Bruce Arena knows.
“The game in the US is at the highest point in its history,” Arena said Thursday morning in the bowels of a rainy Orlando City Stadium. “It’s important we continue to qualify for World Cups.”
Arena also seems motivated.
“This is why you play,” he said. “These types of big games. There will be big moments, and big games generate big performances. We believe we are prepared to deliver one.”
Jozy Altidore agreed.
“It’s on us as players (to win),” Altidore said Thursday. “We feel the pressure but we’ve also been here before. We’re all professionals. We’ve played in these moments. You either embrace it or don’t because you can’t change how you ended up here.”
There’s no room, at least at present, for debates about whether qualifying should have come down to this. There’s plenty of room for debate about what that means and what it portends for the future. US Soccer has systemic issues, and those need to be attended to, to be sure. But whatever the urge to have those conversations, it isn’t a dialogue that should be front and center today or tomorrow.
What matters tomorrow is three points. It won’t be easy. It’s supposed to be hard. The hard is what makes it worth it.
Time for the US to make a stand.
As the gone-too-soon Tom Petty said: “You could stand me up at the gates of hell, and I won’t back down.”
The TYAC Preview then. Usuals. Then particulars.
Series: 20th meeting. The Unitrd States lead 12-2-5. Panama have had success on American soil, at least this decade. The last time the two countries played in Florida was the group stages of the 2011 Gold Cup, where just a short jaunt down I-4 from Orlando, the Yanks were bested by Los Canaleros in Tampa. That tournament was the last in Bob Bradley’s tenure. Panama also dominated the Americans at the 2015 Gold Cup, securing a victory in penalties against the United States in Philadelphia. The most famous meeting (or infamous, depending on your side) between the two nations remains the 2013 qualifier in Panama City, where Graham Zusi scored late, stunning Panama and redeeming Mexico all at once. That defeat eliminated Panama from the World Cup, and now the soccer gods have delivered Panama a chance to return the favor four years later.
Weather: Low 80s, humid with a chance of rain. Orlando had beautiful “autumn in Florida” weather Wednesday (low 80s and sunny) but that has given way to tropical muck and moisture that has the pitch “a bit choppy”, according to local Dax McCarty, who also assured the gathered press that “the weather isn’t an excuse.” It could be a factor though- slowing down a lethal and quick Panamanian counter- but likewise forcing the Americans to be even more patient and probing. Fabian Johnson Misery Index: Okay, okay, that’s just mean, y’all.
Jon Levy on What to Watch for From Panama:
These Panamanian players have proven so much over the course of the last couple years. And it’s worth noting, I do very much mean these players. Panama is rolling with only the most battle tested, iron-sharpens-iron dudes for these all important final qualifiers.
Los Canaleros are once again in position to challenge for a World Cup spot, and this time they’re not doing so inside the Dely Valdés bubble.
We here at TYAC were (and still are) big proponents of the system instituted by the brothers Dely Valdés. Its beauty was that it didn’t ask Panama’s players to suddenly become world-class technicians. Instead, the system employed a different brand of soccer that wasn’t about possession at all. The players were asked to create chaos, pressing in odd spots when they didn’t have to ball, and to get comfortable within its confines whenever they happened to regain possession. What a plan. It was both fun and fascinating to watch (frustrating too when they played the US). And it almost got them to the World Cup. But Graham Zusi’s famous heroics that kept Mexico’s 2014 World Cup hopes alive had to have a victim, and Panama missed out on the big dance. Which is a shame because that New Zealand/Panama two-legged playoff would have been awesome, especially if Winston Reid had been fit. I digress.
Enter Hernán Darío Gómez.
The new Colombian manager comes in and essentially asks this same group of guys to play much more traditional soccer. He even promised “proactive possession.”
Sound familiar? It should. And I was not confident this was going to work. Most pundits had reservations. After all, the team had established an identity under the old regime and almost rose to lofty new heights. That said, after a relatively brief period of growing pains, these same Canaleros de Caos show they’re able to achieve while playing soccer like a “normal team.”
Massive credit due to the whole group. We knew Dely Valdés holdovers like tricky winger Alberto Quintero had ball skills, but Aníbal Godoy, Gabriel Gómez, and Armando Cooper probably deserve the lion’s share of the credit for creating a central midfield that can move the ball and keep possession. We’ll probably see two of the latter three start the match on Friday night, and it will likely be an empty bucket type flat 4-4-2 (though starting all three in a 4-5-1 isn’t out of the question). What we won’t see- because they don’t need it up a point in the standings- is the advanced wingers 4-3-3 they’ve utilized in two home qualifiers and play at youth levels.
And don’t get caught admiring the midfield destroyers turned distributors (that’d be Godoy and Gómez), when the biggest test for the Yanks is probably out on the wings. Alberto Quintero has been a thorn in the side of American wing defenders for five or six years, and Edgár Bárcenas will probably present a similar problem for another half decade on his own. These guys have skill and attacking instincts. Quintero is a lethal incutter, presenting shading problems for a defense that will want to key on Gabriel Torres centrally. And Bárcenas has Liga MX cred and can beat you on the blow-by. Both are unique challenges. They love to take on a defender with the ball at their feet. Oh, and they can fly. Yedlin and Villafaña will have a job to do on Friday.
What hasn’t changed is how they defend. Bruce Arena praised Panama for having conceded only five goals in eight matches in the Hex thus far, and he was right to do so. The Panamanians defend in numbers and are perfectly content to sit deep. They are aging, of course. Felipe Baloy is still doing it but isn’t as mobile. Roman Torres is a player the American forwards raved about, but he takes less chances stepping to balls and cutting things off than he used to. Newcomer Michael Murillo at right back isn’t a great man-marker and shows minimal understanding of when to get forward and when to stay home. But collectively, they communicate and help each other and benefit from the shielders in front. They are extraordinarily difficult to break down and proud of that fact.
But now they possess and keep the ball a bit better, too.
This Panama team’s gone from one where we talk about the center backs and forwards latching onto set pieces, to one where we could very easily get outplayed by the a skilled and unforgiving midfield.
Should it happen? No way. Could it happen? Absolutely. Even at home in the States.
Neil W. Blackmon on what to Watch from the United States:
“We’ve been in camp since Sunday and I think we’ll be prepared and ready to play a good team in Panama,” Bruce Arena said Thursday morning.
The US understand the moment.
“I don’t have to lecture our players on the significance of the moment,” Arena said. “They understand that. But we’ve also been playing do or die games since March. Obviously, this is not normal. But we haven’t had a radically different approach to this game compared to others.”
Omar Gonzalez echoed that sentiment, even if there was a hint of the scale of the occasion.
“I haven’t thought about what this game means to me personally,” Gonzalez said. “But I have thought about what it means as a whole- to our team, to our fans, to our country. I’m ready for that.”
I think- despite the significance of Friday night’s contest- the US are ready and will be prepared. My sense, having observed the Americans a bit this morning, is that the US are loose and juiced-up to play.
An early key? Corralling that emotion and playing with focus. I think the Americans will be aggressive in the early-going and with a full-throated wall of American Outlaws behind them, try to seize the initiative.
This will also be the “danger zone” of the game- as the US press forward early, they’ll be vulnerable on the counter. As such, my “what to watch” begins defensively.
Four in the back or three?
When Jurgen Klinsmann tried three in the back earlier this cycle, it failed for two fundamental reasons. First, by his own admission, the US didn’t practice it or install it at the beginning of camp. They looked at for a half of a friendly and then drew it up on a whiteboard a few hours before a game. Second, Christian Pulisic wasn’t quite ready for the number ten role, and the US lacked another number ten- whether it be Sacha Kljestan or Benny Feilhaber- to fill that gap. The midfield personnel wasn’t a great matchup for the idea, even if defensively, especially with Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron, it makes a modicum of sense.
Now, things are a bit different.
Pulisic, while outstanding on a wing for Borussia Dortmund, has been far more influential and effective playing inside as a playmaker for the United States.
Benny Feilhaber is in this camp, which gives Bruce Arena an option inside as a playmaker if Arena opts to keep Pulisic on a wing. That flexibility could both help Pulisic appear less isolated (a problem in Honduras until he was moved central late) or could help the US keep tempo and pry open a compact Panama defense.
Finally, the continued development of DeAndre Yedlin, coupled with the emergence of Paul Arriola and Jorge Villafana, has given the US the type of speed and chops on the ball you want from wingbacks if you play three in the back.
The Americans missed Yedlin in particular against Honduras and Costa Rica. Beasley gives herculean effort but is a step-off the international pace these days, more a locker room asset than an on-field one. The US flank not only had to protect Zusi at right back; they lost a huge threat down the flank on the overlap. This contributed to their more stagnant stretches of attacking soccer (or lack of it).
The Americans have played arguably some of their best soccer under Bruce Arena- the opening half of a 1-1 draw at Azteca- in the 3-5-2. They switched to it in the final half hour against Honduras, and were able to equalize. It’s a viable option, even in this charged a moment.
Four could work too, but that probably requires a lone forward. Here’s why.
A central problem for the US when they have played 4-4-2 has been that they’ve often appeared too rigid, with very little in the way of ideas or tempo to break compact defensive lines. Pulisic is naturally a seam-buster player, who gets in between the lines with pace and creates. But you have to have something off of him- interplay that makes his runs and the defenders it draws dangerous. To me- that made the omission of Fabian Johnson odd- Johnson, more than any other player in the pool, is the seam-busting runner who looks to play a pass or play off a pass and go at goal. Pulisic combines well with this, and as of yet, against elite opposition, Darlington Nagbe has not.
Another argument for three in the back?
If Pulisic is central, the US are in a position where they are playing with a lone forward, unless they opt to play 3-5-2.
At this point, it’s no secret that Jozy Altidore prefers playing with a partner. Even Altidore conceded it again Thursday.
“I think at this point in my career you know who I am just like I do,” Altidore said. “I’m better with someone to play off of and a partner. We have (Christian) and he’s dynamic, but it is still a ton to ask that guy or the lone guy up top.”
Jozy isn’t wrong. His problems as a lone forward are complicated by his tendency to drop off and find the ball (Altidore’s not really a press the CB classic number nine). He’s a great passer and rewards his team for this tendency, but also can prove ineffective alone, especially with his inclination to get frustrated when the game is going against him.
Bobby Wood is a capable deputy up top by himself, and dating back to at least the CONCACAF Cup in 2015, he’s shown a knack for scoring big goals. But pressing the physical Baloy and Torres alone is a big ask, especially given those two are more than content to sit deep and bump him around most the night anyway.
Another issue with Pulisic high in a 4-2-3-1 is you need a midfielder to link Bradley and Pulisic. The easy solution is Ale Bedoya (I would not use Dax McCarty and move Bradley up, as the former sits too deep and is a risk internationally defending transitions). Bedoya will consistently show for the ball and is comfortable in traffic. He also makes smart decisions- when to provide secondary runs, when to stay home- that are vital in this kind of game against a team waiting to pounce on a loose ball and break. Bedoya is also a great help defender, as Matthew Doyle writes here, which means he can shade on either Villafana or Yedlin’s forays forward- not a small thing. It’s not a terrible strategy, but it is one that probably forces Arena to choose between Altidore and Wood. I don’t like that choice, because Arena will opt for Altidore’s experience, even if it isn’t a great fit.
My guess? The US play 3-5-2 Friday night, and it looks something like the inset. The key? Helping Michael Bradley centrally, showing for the ball and playing quickly. You have to get Panama to move to be effective. Not many have done it.
Jon Levy on the Panama Player to Watch: : Román Torres (Seattle Sounders)
Hey, just because Los Canaleros have made us respect their midfield doesn’t mean we’re not going to keep our eyes on those highly respected center backs. Especially not when Román Torres has been so hot-and-cold for club and country pretty much all year. Yes, he’s had his 2017 disrupted by injury often, but that doesn’t entirely excuse his roller coaster form. Torres used to be a younger and more athletic version of his partner in defense, Felipe Baloy. He was an intimidating center back who was always in position, would outfight you for any 50/50 ball, and posed a constant goal threat on set pieces.
Well, this year he’s not always in position, in fact I’ve seen him on skates in his own defensive third more times within the past year than I had in his entire career up until now. That said he’s added unexpected elements to his game offensively.
Forget the Rio Ferdinand mold where your CB becomes a distributor. Torres now makes a habit of running all the way forward to aid the attack (within the run of play!). He’s also been deployed as a forward on occasion by both club and country, whether off the bench or an in-match position switch. Forget a fox in the box, Torres is the bull in the china shop. So, what’re we actually going to see out of Torres? An aging, injury-riddled, mistake-prone Panamanian co-captain? A throwback to his rock-at-the-back days? To be shortly followed by his mutation into that front-running bull? American defenders have played suspiciously like fine china on recent occasion. We will see…
Neil W. Blackmon on the US Player to Watch: Darlington Nagbe, Portland Timbers
Yes, yes, I know I just put out a lineup in this preview where Nagbe doesn’t start. And you know that Clint Dempsey isn’t going to be eliminated from playing in one final World Cup without seeing the field, so that’s one substitute down. But I’m thinking Nagbe is a perfect substitute for this game.
He’s a carrier of the ball who can fight through traffic- the kind of chaotic, beat you to death game Panama wants. He’s an incisive passer with dynamic vision- the kind of vision you need when there are six Panama defenders crashing your Pulisic in zone 17 party.
But is he elite?
Nagbe super fans fawn and marvel at his technical quality and talent on the ball. They love that he offers the US a possession-piece we haven’t seen much of since Claudio Reyna walked away and John O’Brien’s knees gave out.
But the one question they can’t answer is why he hasn’t shown much influence in a game against anyone half-decent. Mexico? Inconsequential. Costa Rica? Worst game in a US shirt. Friday night, in a do-or-die contest against Panama- it’s time for him to take the next step internationally. If he doesn’t, he might have to wait another cycle to prove his obvious talents aren’t too often wasted.
Prediction: USA 1, Panama 0. Jozy Altidore scores in Florida because Jozy Altidore scores in Florida. America heads to Ato Bolden Stadium with a chance to punch a ticket to Russia.