It’s been a wild ride, but your team has done it. World Cup spot secured. CONCACAF conquered once again, and just three months out from the Gold Cup Final victory over Panama in Chicago. Columbus. Chicago. KC. The Midwest is good to the US Men’s National Team.
Now, rather than drone on about the slim chance of the US securing a seed (top team status in a given group) at the World Cup, I’m going to make sure everyone’s up to speed on the real last match drama in CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying, and yes, the US still plays a role.
First off, I hope you didn’t leave the bar after the USA/Jamaica match on Friday. While you might have been keen on cutting your liver a break, you would actually have been doing yourself a great disservice and missing one of the best CONCACAF World Cup Qualifying matches of the cycle, and it’s no surprise that Panama have played in two of these barn-burners back-to-back. On Friday night Panama and Mexico entered their match at the Azteca firmly on the outside looking in, with respect to automatic qualification. They were both sitting on eight points, with one looking at a two-legged playoff against New Zealand and the other eyeing a long summer on the couch. What followed was an epic 2-1 win for Mexico, complete with a late Panama equalizer and an even later match-winning, legend-making bicycle kick from local favorite Raúl Jiménez.
So how do things stack up heading into Tuesday night, when all three matches will be played at the same time to guard against collusion? The US has secured first in the group, and second place Costa Rica can finish no worse than third, so they’re going to Brazil. Third place Honduras sit just three points clear of Mexico, and a Honduras loss to lowly Jamaica coupled with an El Trí away win over Costa Rica would fling Honduras into that dreaded two-legged playoff against a very physical New Zealand team that’s been salivating for CONCACAF blood for seven months.
Now here’s how the Yanks and the Panamaniacs play in: Panama is in fifth place, but they’re only three points behind Mexico. So if El Trí loses away to a prideful Costa Rica team, and Panama beats the US, Panama finishes tied with Mexico on eleven points and gets the November dates with New Zealand while Mexico misses the World Cup altogether. There is one very minor fly in the ointment of that formula, and that involves Panama winning by one goal, Mexico losing by one goal, and Mexico scoring a lot of goals in their loss. That unlikely scenario would be heartbreaking for Panama, who would miss out on the World Cup Playoff through a “goals scored” tie-breaker in which they’re leading Mexico by two at the moment. A potential Panama/New Zealand series would probably feature 180 minutes of the most rough and tumble soccer we’ve ever seen on the international stage, whereas Mexico/New Zealand would just be three hours of New Zealand captain and West Ham United defensive rock Winston Reid staring down Mexican attackers like Oguchi Onyewu in his prime (that’s how it plays out in my mind anyway).
Got the gist? Panama City when it sizzles.
And what else is there to say about US-Panama, a match where the US will be even more shorthanded than they were in Kansas City? Let’s dive into the particulars.
Series: 14th meeting. United States lead 10-1-2. The Americans have not lost in Panama, with the loss loss to Los Canaleros coming on a hotter-than-the-blazes, sticky night in 2011 in Tampa, Florida. That 2-1 Panama win was where TYAC fell head over heels for the Dely Valdes brothers, who dissected an American team stronger than the one that will take the field in Panama City tonight. That was a group stage Gold Cup match. It goes without saying the stakes tonight are higher.
Weather: No Fabian Johnson, so no Fabian Johnson Misery Index, but it will be in the upper 70’s, and likely raining, at kick. If it isn’t raining, it will be humid, sticky and gross- the kind of weather where it’s pointless to shower until bedtime because if you shower and leave the house, you need another shower in five to ten. Or as Jozy Altidore wrote here, “hot, sticky, humid, just like what I grew up in back in South Florida.” Nailed it.
And what will we see out of Panama?
First off, the US will have to lookout for this:
If Van Halen is for the The Canal Men, who can be against them?
The Panama match previews are generally our favorites to write at The Yanks Are Coming home offices, and not just because it gives us an excuse to blast Van Halen’s “Panama” three or four times an hour. Panama plays a different system than you’ll see almost anywhere else in international soccer; a controlled anarchy with a defense-first mindset, and no illusions about winning the possession battle. Julio Dely Valdés bets on goals coming from set pieces, lightning-fast everybody-forward counterattacks, and moments of extreme opportunism from his small cadre of talented but thankless strikers. For more on the beauty of the Dely Valdés system, and why he should be coveted by high-level club teams with limited resources, I’ll refer you to the Panama section of our Gold Cup Final preview. It should be noted that fifteen of the Panama players involved in tonight’s proceedings were a part of Dely Valdés’ Gold Cup unit, so the pieces are similar, and what they will attempt to do, even at home, won’t change much.
Now having read all our description of The Canal Men and their unorthodox system, you’d probably be correct in asserting that this team isn’t built for a match where they absolutely positively cannot settle for a draw. And while I agree with that statement, Panama is certainly built to win home matches against teams that don’t bring their best players to Panama City. That means the Yanks, who are without Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jermaine Jones, and the starting pair of center backs. It’ll come as no surprise that the American Czar of Possession, Michael Bradley, will be the most missed in this match. While Panama is happy to be out-possessed, they do rely on periodically creating the type of midfield turnovers that Michael Bradley just doesn’t allow for. Kyle Beckerman was terrific playing his defensive midfield spot in the Gold Cup Final against Panama; both cutting out attacks and keeping possession for the US. A little further up the field. Mix Diskerud was also a revelation, knowing when to play the aggressive ball forward, when to skip away from danger, and when to pass back. It’s that kind of composure that Panama should fear, and it’s that composure that they’ll test early and often. Remember that Gold Cup team had been playing matches together for almost a month. This US squad that will take the field on Tuesday night certainly can’t say that, and we may see it in their chemistry or lack thereof.
What’s more, Diskerud was among a group of American players who missed an opportunity in Kansas City to grab a World Cup roster spot by the throat. Diskerud’s defense was far improved, to be sure, but he ran hot and cold in attack, and was guilty of at least one dreadful giveaway that would have resulted in a goal were it not for Tim Howard’s sure hands. Diskerud’s chemistry with Jermaine Jones was lacking, and if he starts, he’ll need to do better with either Kyle Beckerman or Sacha Kljestan tonight.
And as for the aforementioned assertion that Panama isn’t built for must-win matches; well that becomes a problem only after the US takes a lead, or as we get really late into a tied game. But Panama has found late equalizers in each of its last two qualifiers, so they should be confident in pulling a late winner out of the hat with the World Cup on the line.
The bottom line for Los Canaleros is what it is for most team’s in the largest games: they’ll need greatness from their best players. Felipe Baloy, Luis Henriquez and Roman Torres will anchor the back line, and Panama won’t hesitate to thrust any of those players forward in the anarchic counterattacks they’ve made famous in the region, but this match will be won, lost or drawn for Panama by the veteran forwards Blas Perez or Luis Tejada, or even Colorado Rapids youngster Gabriel Torres. If one of those players can test the US offside trap effectively, or outmuscle Clarence Goodson or Geoff Cameron on a set piece- Panama will be in business depending on proceedings in San Jose. If those players struggle, there isn’t enough midfield magic from Amilcar Henriquez, Alberto Quintero, Gabriel Gomoz, Jairo Jimenez and wildcard Anibal Godoy to generate a goal from sustained build-up play. Panama will have to execute their plan perfectly and exploit the Americans where they are weakest- which tonight is through the center and, as usual this cycle, on set pieces.
What to watch for from the Yanks:
I expect to see a return to Jurgen Klinsmann’s favored formation, the 4-2-3-1. This is the formation that best plays to the strengths of the team’s best players, and even with many of those players absent, the 4-2-3-1 gives the US the best chance to both win the match and evaluate players. And after Friday’s second half switch to that formation and the subsequent offensive onslaught on Jamaica, a few players have drastically improved their stock and earned opportunities to play against Panama on Tuesday night. Sacha Kljestan put in a more than credible performance once he was slotted into the central midfield on Friday, a fine display of calmness on the ball and two-touch passing that allowed Mix Diskerud to slide forward and create as a true attacking midfielder. Graham Zusi was finally able to get comfortable and “express himself,” as English commentators like to say, once Jurgen changed personnel and the formation. And Edgar Castillo notched perhaps his best twenty minutes in a US shirt, bombing forward from left back and creating in the final third. Granted, that alone doesn’t qualify him to play left back on any sort of regular basis for the national team, but it might be interesting enough to warrant a start against Panama.
Jurgen Klinsmann has shown a knack for knowing which substitutions to make, and when. The same goes for formations. The 4-4-2 and guys like Eddie Johnson have both been extremely valuable from time to time over the course of the past couple years. We’ll bring them both to the World Cup, but neither should be first choice. This match in Panama will be about finding out who else should be wearing warm-ups on the sidelines in Brazil, ready to come off the bench or start the next match, making a positive impact while staying in rhythm.
We rarely address the goalkeepers at TYAC- hardly any major American site does- but it is worth mentioning that Brad Guzan gets a big start in goal. Guzan has contributed to the team’s qualification as a starter this cycle and his form at club speaks for itself. History is full of villainous goalkeepers crushing the dreams of Cinderella– it’s a role Guzan should relish tonight in a rare taste of road qualifying. Guzan, if in form and healthy, will have plenty of road qualifiers next cycle. This is a best-case warm-up scenario: on the road against a team that has to win.
In front of the bald Villain will be Klinsmann security blanket Clarence Goodson, who will be tasked with controlling the skies against a Panama side that this site believes is the finest in CONCACAF on set pieces. Goodson is fortunate in that Panama doesn’t test the offside trap as well as say, Mexico or Costa Rica, but his lack of pace makes his positioning crucial anyway against anarchic Canaleros counterattacks. He’ll be joined by Stoke City swiss-army knife Geoff Cameron, who started slowly in Kansas City but was dominant late. Full credit to Klinsmann for suggesting Cameron is best at CB (something we’ve written for about a year), and giving him two excellent chances to prove he, not the error-prone Omar Gonzalez, should top the depth chart as the Americans move toward Brazil.
DaMarcus Beasley will man one fullback spot, and here’s a fun thought: if someone told you Run DMB would be the most consistent, most involved, most reliable player in the qualifying cycle- would you have laughed or just told them they were stupid? That he did it learning a new position is even more sensational. Rapids younster Deshorn Brown’s frustrated pleas to the referee Friday night were indicative of Beasley’s improvement as a left back– the vet was tired after 66 minutes of chasing the speedy Jamaican but he wasn’t particularly challenged. Beasley will likely get the armband and be joined by Brad Evans, who was crafty in both his positioning and tackles in Kansas City, outclassing another MLS youngster, Darren Mattocks. There’s no guarantees about Steve Cherundolo’s status, so Evans might end up being the guy next summer. Before you talk about that as an indictment of US depth and quality- take a deep breath and remember England is playing a match they need a result in tonight and they’re running Steven Gerrard out at right back. It could be worse.
The US midfield should be fascinating. Alejandro Bedoya was another American who disappointed when given a huge chance Friday night. This site, and particularly our Neil W. Blackmon, have defended Bedoya as a winger who should be close to a roster spot consistently, and that might not have changed. But we’re not going to give his errant passing and clumsy defensive angles Friday evening a pass, even if he was involved in Graham Zusi’s breakthrough. Bedoya should get another look tonight in Panama, and it is imperative that he impress. Joining Bedoya should be any combination of Sacha Kljestan, Kyle Beckerman and Mix Diskerud, along with Graham Zusi. Zusi was electric on his home field off the bench Friday night, scoring a goal with great movement and delivering passes to both Aron Johannsson and Sacha Kljestan that nearly resulted in American goals. A road qualifier is a different deal– but outside of Beckerman, Zusi is the one guy the US still have in camp that can beat a defense with defenders draped on his shirt, and he’s the least likely of all of them to be bothered by Panama’s pressure. Almost a must start.
Up top, Jozy Altidore figures to put in a shift, the only question is whether he’ll be joined this time by Aron Johannsson or another American forward up top, or he’ll have a Diskerud-type in the hole behind him. As noted, we’re betting on the latter. Chris Wondolowski struggled mightily against Panama this summer– so when Klinsmann does substitute around the hour mark we’d expect to see Johannsson get another look or Terrence Boyd, who has the muscle to deal with Baloy.
US Player to Watch: Sacha Kljestan
There were a number of contenders for “Player to Watch” for this match, more than usual, so how did we land on Sacha Kljestan? Certainly not just because he’s been a Yanks Are Coming favorite since the inception of the blog in 2008. No, there was a thoroughly logical process by which we arrived at Super Sacha as our pick.
Goalkeeper Brad Guzan would probably have been the popular pick, especially considering the ever-growing Guzan-over-Howard contingent within the US Soccer community. But, outside of what we already discussed, what can we really learn about Guzan in this match? Probably not enough to change anyone’s opinion in the relatively new first choice goalkeeper debate. No matter what happens on Friday night Brad Guzan is still a great goalkeeper on the rise, now sought after by Arsenal. Oh and by the way, he recently shutout Mexico at the Azteca. And none of that changes the fact that Tim Howard is still a great goalkeeper who’s in the process of putting the finishing touches on his USMNT/Everton legacy. Oh and by the way, he also recently shutout Mexico at the Azteca.
Other “Player to Watch” candidates included Graham Zusi and Edgar Castillo, both of whom were super-subs on Friday like Kljestan. But Zusi’s last performance probably already pencils him back in as a starter on the full national team, and with DaMarcus Beasley still on this roster, Edgar Castillo isn’t likely to start on the left defensive flank anyway. But Sacha Kljestan’s case is different.
Sacha’s fighting to keep his spot on the plane to Brazil, and he’s got a shot to prove that he should be the first true central midfielder off the bench if Michael Bradley is injured or suspended. But therein lies the rub, because a big part of Sacha’s early importance to the USMNT stemmed from his long-built chemistry with Michael Bradley. He was the attacking central mid in Bob Bradley’s 4-4-2 to MB90’s defensive central mid.
Much has been made (rightfully so) of Bradley’s development in Europe, particularly since he arrived in Italy. But the truth is high level European football has rounded out both players. Michael Bradley’s long since gone from a defensive midfielder to a true box-to-box field general. And since moving to Anderlecht, Sacha’s defensive deficiencies have steadily been disappearing. So now we have two well developed players who tend to make the right decisions with the ball, who still have great chemistry with one another, but who are seen as more like-for-like than potential midfield partners. This match against Panama is no opportunity for Sacha to unseat Jermaine Jones, and even if Jermaine’s spot was up for grabs, it would probably go to a more defensive-minded player like The Dred Pirate Beckerman or Geoff Cameron. Rather, Tuesday night in Panama should be a chance for Kljestan to establish himself as the preferred substitute for that designated defensive midfielder in situations when the Yanks need to manufacture some offense. I think that’s a role Sacha would embrace, and I know it’s one in which he can excel. Throw in the fact that he’s still one of the only US players in this group with expansive road qualifier experience if you don’t believe us, and you see why he’s a worthy PTW.
Panamanian Player to Watch: Aníbal Godoy
We are picking a midfielder because it is too easy to say “Hey, Blas Perez is really important!!” And we’ve done that before.
This guy should be the damn mascot for the Panamanian national team. Godoy is a 23 year old midfielder who plays his club football in Budapest, and if you watched this summer’s Gold Cup tournament, you’ll recognize his name at the very least.
The polite way to describe Godoy would involve me saying something to the effect of “he’s a box-to-box midfielder with a great motor, and he’s exceptionally strong in the tackle.” But that description could be applied to anyone from Mark Noble to Perry Kitchen to Michael Bradley.
Here’s the real book on Godoy within the confines of this Panama team: He runs around like a chicken with its head cut off, launching into no-regard-for-human-life tackles that often get the ball first, but leave the opposing player down on the turf. He’s a box-to-box middy only by virtue of the fact that he’s chasing the game all over the pitch, and somehow he doesn’t get tired. He’ll shoot from outside the box, and might just put one on frame, and when he does elect to pass in the final third he usually finds a teammate, but that’s helped immensely by the fact that the whole Panamanian midfield bombs forward when the team gets possession. Godoy is a player created in a lab by the Dely Valdés Brothers, and he’s absolute hell to play against. This is the guy Clint Dempsey would get into a professional wrestling stare-down with if he was making the trip to Panama City.
Prediction: Panama 1 – 1 USA
The USMNT gets a first half goal, leaving Panama to chase in the second half, but an equalizer is all they can muster, and the Panamanian World Cup dream dies as Mexico get set for two rounds with New Zealand.
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon.
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!