Neil W. Blackmon
The US Men’s National Team begins play in the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup Saturday with a tricky test against a familiar opponent, Panama. The game, played at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, is likely to be the toughest test for the US in an otherwise soft group and should answer what lingering questions remain about how Bruce Arena’s Gold Cup roster functions as a unit.
Here at TYAC, we’d like to think that if soccer journalism were college and you had to pick majors and minors and outside concentrations, we would, at a bare minimum, have an outside concentration in writing Panama previews. It just seems like these are two sides that keep meeting. Indeed, this will be the eighth time the two nations have met at a Gold Cup since 2007, an impressive number considering that’s “only” a span of 6 Gold Cups.
This match, occurring in what’s usually thought of as an “off year” Gold Cup, in that it comes during a summer sandwiched between a Confederations Cup and vital Labor Day World Cup qualifiers, features a US roster that is largely comprised of fringe A/B teamers and a Panama roster that is manager Hernán Darío Gómez’s best attempt yet at infusing some youth into a veteran side that currently sit fourth in the CONCACAF qualifying standings. The combination of two younger squads with players that have plenty to prove should set the stage for exciting soccer Saturday afternoon.
The TYAC preview, then. Usuals (except players to watch) and then particulars.
First, Van Halen.
Series: 19th Meeting. The United States lead, 12-2-4. In Gold Cup play, the Americans are 5-2-2, but the two sides are dead even this decade. Panama defeated the US in Tampa in the 2011 group stage, which was ultimately Bob Bradley’s final tournament as US manager. Then, after a group stage draw dominated by Panama, the Canaleros bested Jurgen Klinsmann’s US in penalties in the 2015 3rd place game, despite a massive performance from US keeper Brad Guzan. The US measure of revenge? Graham Zusi’s goal in November of 2013, of course, which kept Panama from its first World Cup and rescued a forlorn Mexico from national embarrassment.
Weather: Hot. Around 90 at kick and lingering there until late in the game. Nissan Stadium, which sits essentially on the banks of the Cumberland River, won’t offer much of a respite from classic southern humidity either. Fitness (and cramping) will be an issue, especially for the handful of players in preseason form thanks to the difference in European club schedules. Fabian Johnson isn’t here, but this is a 9-10 on the Misery Index.
What to Watch for From Panama:
A side with talent that is well-organized and competes. A side that knows its biggest soccer games come as summer fades into autumn, but one with plenty of players looking to earn a chance to play a role in those proceedings.
It’s been a tremendous ten years for Panama soccer, with increased federation and national investment at home coupled with good coaches (Dely Valdes brothers, Hernán Darío Gómez’s) helping Panama to some famous results (besting the US on American soil in 2011, earning World Cup qualifying points against Mexico at home in 2011 and 2015) and a third place finish at the 2015 Gold Cup.
The one obstacle remaining for Los Canaleros? Qualifying for the World Cup.
The Dely Valdes brothers were replaced after the late Zusi goal knocked Panama out of the 2014 World Cup, and replaced by the Colombian Gómez, who vowed to infuse a bit more possession and attacking verve into Panama’s soccer while maintaining the no-nonsense defensive identity.
So far, Panama have had more of the ball than under the Dely Valdes brothers, but have struggled to score, tallying only four goals in six World Cup qualifiers.
One thing is certain with Panama: the positioning of the wingers dictate how aggressive they intend to be at any given time. 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.
We saw the latter in Panama’s qualifiers against Mexico and the United States, with the 4-5-1 at times morphing into a flatter 4-4-2. The effect was still terrific, as on breaks it as Alberto Quintero or opposite winger Édgar Bárcenas gave El Tri the business and Panama certainly had the better chances against the US in March.
The 4-1-4-1 is more likely with this team, playing on the road in the summer heat. The roster is the other hint on this front, with Gabriel Torres, who plays in Switzerland, the lone quality forward in the team, with longtime CONCACAF Gold Cup menaces Luis Tejada and Blas Perez left at home. Panamanians are excited about 20 year old Porto prospect Ismael Diaz, and Abdiel Arroyo, a veteran of U20 Panama campaigns, offers depth.
But the reality is the strength of this side remains in the midfield, where Gabriel Gomez will earn cap number 133 Saturday and be joined by the very capable MLS’ers Armando Cooper and Anibal Godoy. Bárcenas, who plays in Liga MX, is the best of the group, a speedy winger who is Gio Dos Santos devastating on the incut and electric with the ball at his feet.
Either way, Panama will defend. They’ve conceded only four goals in World Cup qualifying, and even with Roman Torres earning the summer off, Los Canaleros continue to churn out defensive talent, with Sporting CP prospect Fidel Escobar and NYCFC talent Michael Murillo in this team. The fullback Escobar, a young technically gifted player with Sporting CP, is particularly exciting, and has played a great deal for Gómez since making his debut against the US in 2015. He’s the kind of overlapping threat Panama have lacked in years past.
What to Watch From the United States:
The Americans know this is the toughest test of the group stage.
“I think it’s going to be a great test against Panama,” U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola told reporters. “I think it’s going to be the key to moving forward in the tournament.”
Arriola’s right- and not simply from a results standpoint. The reality is this is the only opponent in the group stage that will give Bruce Arena insight into the strengths and weaknesses of his roster before the knock out stages. That’s a vital point, because it means Arena essentially gets a 90 minute evaluation of what roster changes he may want to make before the quarterfinals, which is allowed pursuant to quirky Gold Cup rules.
He’ll get to make those evaluations against a familiar opponent, and a team that presents traditional CONCACAF challenges: tight, organized defense and pacy counterattacking football.
They’re a dangerous team,” Graham Zusi told TYAC two weeks ago. They counter swiftly and have hurt us on set pieces. It’s the first game and we’ll need to be focused.”
Arena will too. Three critical evaluations for the boss:
1. Are Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta enough in the center of the park to give Michael Bradley the summer off?
Early returns were marvelous, as the duo pulled the strings and dictated the game against a Ghana side with plenty of quality last weekend.
It’s hard not to feel both good about and for Dax McCarty, who has been an excellent MLS player for nearly a decade but found camps, let alone caps, difficult under Jurgen Klinsmann. McCarty has parlayed a surprise move away from the New York Red Bulls, where he’ll long be a club legend, to Chicago, into a club MVP caliber regular season in MLS. The reward has been a second chance at the national team, which is both deserved and, according to this terrific piece from Steven Goff this week, appreciated.
Still, there are fair questions about McCarty as an international soccer player. He lacks the footspeed to offer much in the way of emergency defense, which means the Yanks can’t afford to deploy him too high up the field. This limits what he can cover, and those limitations are all the more problematic against faster, more physical sides, who could potentially overwhelm McCarty with athleticism. While you’re right if you’re thinking these criticisms have dogged McCarty at every level- and he’s defied them- it doesn’t mean they’re wrong in international soccer. McCarty is a terrific asset as a deputy to Michael Bradley. Whether he’s solid enough to win a tournament as the incumbent starter is a different question, and one Bruce Arena only gets 90 valuable minutes to effectively evaluate.
As for Kellyn Acosta, his argument to displace Jermaine Jones in the central midfield and start alongside Michael Bradley grows stronger with each cap. Acosta’s blend of speed, passing vision, and soccer nous offer glimpses into the box to box element the US has missed since Stu Holden’s career was cut short by injury. At a bare minimum, he’s been good enough to make Michael Bradley comfortable again, which he hasn’t been for an entire World Cup cycle. As gamey a player as Jermaine Jones is- he’s a tough player to combine with, and has been at every destination in his esteemed career. . And while the US may be reluctant to hand the set piece reins to the FC Dallas youngster after some of his errant balls last weekend, the reality is he also scored a set piece goal.
At bottom, Acosta’s largest contribution to this team thus far has been his ability to stabilize things for the American captain, allowing Bradley to play freely without overthinking and overcompensating. That’s not nothing, and it might be worth utilizing in the knock out rounds.
2. What’s the forward pecking order?
The thinking here is you saw it against Ghana- Dwyer first and Morris off the bench and Agudelo a definitive third but likely to see action in the other two group stage matches.
The catch, as I wrote last weekend, is the definitive possibility that Bruce Arena played with one solitary forward against Ghana to help Dwyer feel more comfortable adjusting to international soccer. By utilizing the formation and role he’s familiar with under Peter Vermes, Arena simplified things for a player likely on edge in his international debut.
The reality is this US team lacks a traditional number ten, which makes playing only one forward a bit more complicated over an entire tournament. The US did well rotating Joe Corona, Paul Arriola and Kelyn Rowe in that role against Ghana, but how will that play out against an organized Panama?
It’s a fascinating inquiry and one that will answer questions about whether you’ll see Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore in the next round. The thinking here is one of those two will be in the camp. If it is both, it’s likely proceedings Saturday didn’t go as expected.
Nevertheless, I like the eleven in the inset for the US on Saturday.
3. Three or Four in the back?
The three man backline is something the US seem to be more comfortable considering moving forward, as they grow to trust Jorge Villafana and DeAndre Yedlin in wingback spots. But Yedlin isn’t here, and Eric Lichaj is more suited to a traditional fullback role. It’s possible the US could shoehorn Graham Zusi or Ale Bedoya into a wingback role on another flank, but the only net benefit to this is assuring that Omar Gonzalez, Matt Hedges and Matt Besler all take the field together, which seems an unworthy opportunity cost.
As such, the four man backline, with Villafana, who wasn’t great against Ghana’s athleticism and pace, especially when they ran right at him, on the left and one of Zusi or Lichaj on the other side.
TYAC isn’t ready to read too much into Lichaj’s non-appearance against Ghana, as the Nottingham Forest defender was one of only two American field players in camp who arrived in preseason form. The other- Matt Miazga of Chelsea FC- also did not feature. This suggests Arena looked more at fitness than capability, at least when penciling in his eleven last week. Whether Lichaj plays a role Saturday against Panama will be more instructive.
Omar Gonzalez is likely to start at one CB spot, despite the fine performance of the Besler-Hedges pairing last weekend. Remember Gonzalez is a player Arena thought so highly of he made him a DP when he was at the Galaxy. He has Arena’s trust and this is the one game of the group stage the Americans could very possibly lose. He’ll get the call.
There are less group-stage to knockout stage roster implications with the defensive group. Justin Morrow would be a worthy shout, as would MLS All-Star Greg Garza. But neither is a guy you would trust over someone already in camp, and neither is Matt Polster. Steven Birnbaum has played well in a US shirt this cycle, but he’s probably fourth among a quartet that also includes Besler, Gonzalez and Hedges, who are already here.
Prediction: USA 1, Panama 0. I like the Americans to scrap a goal early in the second half and kill the game off effectively. It won’t be a Picasso, but games against Panama never are.
Neil W. Blackmon co-founded The Yanks Are Coming. Follow him on Twitter @nwblackmon.