Jon Levy and Neil W. Blackmon
Seattle, by now known for its rapturous crowds and two-hour plus singsong advertisements for soccer as brand in America, will finally host a US Men’s National Team qualifying match tonight when the United States takes on Panama at CenturyLink Field (10 PM, ESPN). Culturally, it makes sense that Seattle, birthplace of alternative rock, would embrace the globe’s game at a pace slightly ahead of the curve, and were it not for a tricky situation with field turf (more on that later), a qualifier would probably have happened sooner. And even with a crowd that is likely to be smaller than Saturday night’s 50,000 for the Cascadia Cup, the atmosphere should be electric. A great promotional experiment would be to fly a plane over the Mariners game across the street, and see what building is more full and more passionate. The guess here is it will be the soccer venue. Throw in the straight out of a Disney storybook subplot involving hometown hero Brad Evans, coming home to Seattle days removed from his heroics at “The Office” in Kingston, and its a qualifier riveting with plotlines.
Since the opponent is Panama, there’s only one way to begin our match previews here on The Yanks Are Coming, and that’s with an exhaustive analysis of the Panamanian bench, from club form to who rooms with who on the road to… Just kidding, here’s Van Halen.
Bradley Ray Evans, dapper young man, prince of the PBR paupers, sultan of Seattle, and his USMNT mates are (should be?) brimming with confidence coming off a thrilling last gasp World Cup Qualifying win in Kingston (the first Yanks WCQ win on Jamaican soil!), and of course a big 4-3 victory against Germany at RFK Stadium. Blas Perez fought Montezuma, and Montezuma won, and now you’re listening to “Panama,” life doesn’t suck right now!
So let’s kick the ballistics here.
Series: Twelfth meeting. The US lead, 8-1-2. The lone loss, which will be discussed below, was 2-1 in the preliminary stages of the 2011 Gold Cup, in Tampa on home soil. The Americans have hosted two World Cup qualifiers against Panama, and have scored eight goals without conceding.
Weather: Mid-50’s, crisp, very little chance of rain. A beautiful night for football– and maybe for a Fabian Johnson renaissance– hey- maybe it’s been the hot weather, right?
First, Neil W. Blackmon on what to watch for from the Yanks:
How about a bit of continuity in attack and a goal-scoring explosion? The US have shown that they can get elite results under Jurgen Klinsmann, even if all of those results came in friendlies (1-0 over Italy in Genoa, 1-0 over Mexico at the Azteca, 4-3 over Germany at RFK). What they haven’t shown, with any level of consistency, is the ability to continuously look like a threatening side in attack? So that’s what we’d like to see, more than anything, out of the Yanks in this match. And therein lies the rub…
Panama is, tactically, the best defensive side in CONCACAF. Julio Dely Valdez is of the fine career turned manager fold, just like Jurgen Klinsmann across the halfline, but he’s more of the engineer brand of soccer manager than Klinsmann’s emotive, drill, motivate and motivate more managerial style. Very quietly, Dely Valdez has assembled a brand of organized, tactical chaos that features and promotes, above all else, defensive discipline. How? The best analysis, in this writer’s view, can be found over at The Shin Guardian, and as such, here is the link. An abbreviated analysis- that differs in a couple respects, can be found below in the Panama section. The key thing to remember is that Felipe Baloy, Panama’s captain, enforcer and heartbeat, shuts down 1 v. 1 attacks and is supported by two deep lying midfielders who defend first, matriculate the attack second, and two wide players who play narrowly but constantly feign width, using their sneaky pace to generate turnovers and jumpstart frenetic breaks, where Luis Tejada, and typically, though not tomorrow night, Blas Perez make up a forward pairing that is lethal in most regions of the world, not just the dimly-lit haunts of CONCACAF.
What does this mean for the United States, and the hope that they can display some continuity in terms of threatening attack? Without even factoring in the critical injuries and suspensions to Graham Zusi and Jermaine Jones, it means you’ll likely have to wait until next week against Honduras. The goals (goal?) won’t come easy tomorrow night, and if Jurgen Klinsmann manages to one-up his predecessor, Bob Bradley, who waited Panama out until Freddy Adu– yes, that guy– broke through in the Gold Cup semifinals in 2011– and find more than one goal– it will be a tremendous evening for the red, white and blue.
So what’s a Jurgen to do? First, he’ll have to replace Jermaine Jones, who will miss Tuesday night’s affair after suffering a concussion late in the match in Kingston. Geoff Cameron seems to be the trendy pick to take Jones’ spot, and yes, he’s the safe one. He played well as a deputy in Kingston and he’s got the mettle that might be necessary if the game turns into a midfield “OK Corral” type affair where the US literally has to break Panama’s will. The other option, and the one this writer would prefer, would be Sacha Kljestan, who might have looked a bit ordinary against Belgium but that’s hardly a sin. Kljestan is coming off the finest year of his career, has paired with Michael Bradley for about a decade on various teams, and is a far more creative option in the center than Cameron. He and Bradley have a great understanding, and playing at home, this writer, at least, feels the best way to win a standoff is to unlock the other defense rather than wait for it to blink.
Klinsmann will also have to replace Graham Zusi, who has been nothing short of a revelation in his last two matches, giving the United States a semblance of width, sucking in defenders and creating midfield zone space, and providing service-starved Jozy Altidore with meat and potatoes. Here, Klinsmann has options. He could call on Joe Corona– although that’s an awfully big spot for the young man. He could also slot Brad Evans to the left, flip Fabian Johnson to the right and play Michael Parkhurst in Evans fullback slot.
Alternatively, he could keep Evans and Johnson in place, and play Sacha Kljestan out wide. That seems dangerous because Kljestan isn’t fast, and worse yet, his speed isn’t really any different on the ball than off it– which is to say– he’s a NFL nickelback with bad hips left on an island when he plays out wide, and, given his tendency to drift centrally (close to you know, his natural position), when he starts out wide, he’s a NFL nickelback playing out of position with bad hips. That’s a recipe for disaster against Panama’s frenetic counter, which seeks to quickly matriculate the ball wide to wingers who move from central positions quickly to the flanks upon recovering the ball. In other words, Panama tactically will want to bait Kljestan into drifting centrally, which he’ll want to do anyway– and then Kljestan will be on an island with only DeMarcus Beasley to cover when he does so and Panama counters. As such, playing Kljestan on a flank is probably the worst of all the tactical options. Geoff Cameron at fullback, with Evans slotted up and Johnson flipped around, might be the safest play, and it allows Kljestan and Bradley the opportunity to dicate proceedings from the center.
Unfortunately for Klinsmann, the midfield isn’t the only riddle to solve tonight. There’s the question of whether he has a more hipster outfit than what he sported down island Friday night. And then there’s Felipe Baloy. Baloy is a game-changer at centerback, and without Zusi, Jozy Altidore may need more help up top to influence proceedings. Clint Dempsey has been playing withdrawn, slightly behind Jozy Altidore and essentially doing whatever Klinsmann asks him to do, or maybe more aptly, whatever Dempsey thinks the game is dictating he do. Deuce got a couple of mediocre player ratings grades Friday night after the win in Kingston, which demonstrates two things. First, player ratings are silly, but anyone who reads TYAC understands our established view on player ratings. Second, Dempsey was taxed for the US lacking continuity in attack, which is unfair, of course, because Dempsey’s ability to drop deep into the midfield zone was largely why the US had so many 4 and 5 v. 2 opportunities in attack early in the match and after the opening goal. The question isn’t whether or not Dempsey is influential, it’s where to deploy him to make sure he’s influential enough. There’s a strong argument to be made he should be paired with Altidore, or behind Altidore and another forward, in a 4-3-1-2, to limit the number of times Felipe Baloy can get Jozy Altidore in a 1 v. 1. The number of times that occurs will directly correlate with what type of game Altidore has, and as such, what type of game the US have.
Beyond all of that, there’s also the issue of the field, where temporary grass has been laid down instead of the typical turf. DaMarcus Beasley says “it will be tough” to play on, but he’d definitely “rather play on that than artificial turf.” Michael Bradley says “it’s not ideal” and notes that “the ball won’t bounce.” It’s another headache for a team that already has injuries, suspensions, and the Panama defense to reckon with. Such is life in qualifying, I say. Deal with it.
Finally, and this is more an aside: if Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler prove to be a formidable back pair again tonight, it will speak volumes about MLS. For all of the talk about Jurgen Klinsmann’s visionquest to root out talent from all corners of the country and play a diverse style that reflects the country, and for all his Germaneering of the US midfield, the last month or so have seen the MLS players do the incredible things. This is not to say Jermaine Jones and others haven’t contributed– they have– but the MLS guys have delivered in spades, whether it be Zusi, Besler, Gonzalez, or Brad Evans. It’s a testament to the league, and tomorrow night, in perhaps the league’s most special venue, could be a great moment for MLS.
Jon Levy on what will we see out of Panama…
No-nonsense defending and nonsense counterattacking: we’re gonna see absolute nonsense out of Panama. At least that’s what they make it look like on the field. And it’s largely by design!
Panama is an athletic team without the midfield organization or skill to play a match-long possession-based attack. So they remove the will to do so and resign themselves to finding another way. Sounds like some of the old Bruce Arena or Bob Bradley teams’ strategies when faced with superior European or South American opposition right? You’d be right in pointing out the similarities that both those US teams and this Panama team get theirs through set pieces and the counterattack, but that’s just about where the comparisons should stop. Bruce and Bobbo’s teams found strength in an organized approach, and exploited set piece situations due to a painstaking amount of practice and large American dudes who could get onto a ball before the opposition.
When it comes to Panama, replace the word “organized” with “chaotic.” They’ve got a fast break counterattack where basically anyone who feels like it just bombs forward and hopes, hollering at the guy (usually a winger who breaks away from a tucked-in position as soon as possession is won) with the ball once that motorcade hits the final third. Because Felipe Baloy and his backline mates, notably Carlos Rodriguez and Roman Torres, are all fast and when Panama do keep the ball, they’ll come forward as well, pressuring the opposition into spot-marking and mismatches. The Panamanian attack is Dutch “Total Football” on angel dust.
When Panama are not on the counter, it can seem like the “overlaps” and “position switches” are planned and deliberate; those times are fleeting. What Panama ultimately emphasizes, as noted above, is discipline in front of the Baloy four– and outside of “recover possession and break”, they are reluctant to try different things and short on offensive ideas. When in possesion and not on the counter, they rely, as they did in the 2011 Gold Cup, on long balls by Amilcar Henriquez, excellent long throws and crafty strikers who can draw penalties– the best of those being Perez, who will miss the match tonight. Even without Perez, Luis Tejada scores goals, and the Americans will need to respect him. Here’s a link to Neil’s story on what happened to the USMNT the last time they didn’t respect the Panama counter.
Meanwhile, set pieces are perfect for Panama. They don’t even have to practice them much, they just embrace the chaos in the box that Alexi Lalas spends half his TV time harping on, and though they’re not particularly efficient, they’re constantly dangerous. It won’t be a game where the US should be broken down in the run of play. The goal, if Panama is to score, will come on the counter or a set piece, or on a crafty penalty drawn by Luis Tejada (anyone who is watching Beasley on the counter and turn near the area of late has to know one is coming– it’s just a matter of when). Cover by the American central pairing and smart, clean tackles will be paramount.
Panamanian Player to Watch: Felipe Baloy
This guy made the All-Time Yank Killer Team with one hard-nosed virtuoso performance in the 2011 Gold Cup. He played well against the US again in that tournament’s semifinal, and he’s about to make Jozy Altidore’s life hell– think Drago, late rounds, “he’s not human…” type hell.
Baloy is a central defender for Panama, he’s also the team captain, and the hardest dude on the field. Visions of him tackling the crap out of American defenders and out-muscling our center backs on set pieces still give me nightmares. So how do we neutralize the Santos Laguna defensive dynamo?
Before being sent out of camp with a minor injury, one could have thought we had a secret weapon in former Santos man Herculez Gomez? Herc just got transferred from Santos Laguna to Tijuana. Before making his move to the land of barbecue iguana Gomez spent a couple seasons playing with, and training against, Felipe Baloy. Now we won’t see Gomez on the field, but perhaps before departing Herculez had one magic tip for how to beat Baloy? I don’t think he did any more than I think Jurgen Klinsmann had the magic formula for keeping his former striker Miroslav Klose off the score sheet, but familiarity can often help a little, and maybe a little tip that gains a little space is all this new national team version of Altidore needs.
US Player to Watch: Matt Besler
This is a different kind of test for the young American center back. Besler has shown positioning and defensive acumen along with good speed since getting his chance with the USMNT, but putting those skills to good use against a Panamanian counterattack that makes no sense will prove a new hurdle to negotiate for the Sporting KC center back.
The US should out-possess Panama by a decent margin in Seattle, so that bodes well for Besler and what we must still describe as a shaky American backline. And Blas Perez, the Panamanian goal scorer, is out with a stomach virus. That’s a good present too, but both the factors I just mentioned add to the unpredictable nature of Panama’s attack. Like a goalkeeper who spends twenty minutes without any action whatsoever, Besler will have to steel himself against complacency and be ready for the lightning-fast counterpunch when it comes.
Oh, and before you and Mr. Besler start throwing “the King is dead!” parties in honor of the absence of Blas Perez, it’s important to remember that Panama’s top goal scorer of all time, Luis Tejada, is in the team and ready to break all of our hearts. Tejada terrorized Honduras, has the pace left to outmaneuver Beasley, and will force Besler into the more testy moments of the night for the USMNT defense– book it.
Prediction: USA 2 – 0 Panama
It’s been a while since I predicted a win for the Yanks. Feels kind of good to do so. Dare we dream of dos a cero? We dare.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!