Featured, January 2012, USMNT

USA – Panama: Round Three – Your TYAC Preview

Saturday night was an ugly match with a storybook ending. Here's to Ricardo Clark.

Jon Levy 

The Yanks are coming off what’s becoming the typical Jurgen Klinsmann USMNT performance when faced with less skilled competition. They possessed the crap out of ball, moved it well in their opponent’s half, but failed to generate clear cut scoring chances against a well organized defense. But they did get a pinch of the old Bob Bradley formula in the 97th minute,  when a couple defensive midfielders linked up for a set piece winner at the death. Don’t worry Jurgen, Ricardo Clark and Jermaine Jones both play in the Bundesliga, so you get your credit too. On a sidenote, and I’m certain we’ll see more of this on this site when Neil W. Blackmon reviews the two friendlies in the aftermath of tomorrow night’s match– but it was a great moment for Ricardo Clark. It will never be easy to forget what happened in South Africa, but Ricardo Clark is a good guy who has played hard for his country for several years, and he deserves praise for his gumption in finding a winner Saturday. Onto the match!!

What to watch for from the Yanks: Our boys should easily win the possession battle, but that means next to nothing in the face of either the Venezuelan or Panamanian attack. The difference here is that Panama tends to be more dangerous and less predictable in their brief spells with the ball than do the South Americans we saw on Saturday night. The Yanks will look to draw Panama’s defenders out of position, and the book on Panama suggests that ought to work, because historically they’re far less disciplined than the Venezuela side we saw Saturday, or traditional CONCACAF qualifying foes in that respect.

The Dred Pirate Beckerman won't be available- and this would have been a game where at his best, she could effectively shield the center of the American defense against a stealthy Panamanian counter.

The difference now is a managerial one. Julio Dely Valdes has instilled discipline into the side defensively, while keeping it dangerous on the counter. And one leads to the other: when you play more disciplined, your counterattack becomes more dangerous. Dely Valdes’ men stay in their positions and in the midfield passing lanes, and so nowadays, when you turn the ball over, they are much more able to get out on the counter faster. Why does this matter? Well, for two reasons. First, the US has played a higher line under Klinsmann. This means a quicker counter can exploit CB’s who get sucked out too far for too long (See: Panama, Tampa, Gold Cup group play) Second, Panama’s best players in attack aren’t trailblazers– but they are clever. They’re adept at analyzing weaknesses and gaps in the midfield and center, and finding their way through them. This creates extra scoring chances, even against more talented units. Klinsmann’s “Camp Cupcakers” will be tested significantly in this regard. Kyle Beckerman has a knock and reportedly won’t be available, which means once again Jermaine Jones will have to be at his best to help the defense win these battles, and we’ll need to see way more from Brek Shea, who put on a “pass it to the other team” clinic in the second half Saturday night, for the US to break down the Panamanian side in the final third.

That said, If Klinsmann’s system can somehow pick apart a Panama team that perplexed Bob Bradley’s version of the national team, he’ll have taken a big step in validating his hiring. If Klinsmann can ensure Jones’ brilliant to bonehead ratio gets above 1:1 as well– it will be a fine night.

FC Dallas signee Blas Perez will test the Camp Klinsmann back line with his talented one-on-one skills.

What will we see out of Panama?

Expect chaos theory, with a healthy dose of increased discipline in defense and the typical fast break attack as per Panamanian usual. Credit to coach Julio Dely Valdés for crafting an effective system that flies in the face of current conventional footballing wisdom. Dely Valdes has also shown tactical flexibility, changing his formations and central attacking hubs depending on the talent at his disposal. With Alberto Quintero at his disposal tomorrow, Panama will likely look to burst forward and play the ball to the wings, where capable wingers will count on forwards Blas Perez and Luis Renteria to win one-on-one battles. This means big qualifying test/opportunity for Geoff Cameron, and big qualifying “can you help us” test for shielders like Kyle Beckerman.

Geoff Cameron's effort and play was strong Saturday night, but Panama is a much more capable test.

What’s more, Panama doesn’t need to possess the ball to be effective, and their moves toward goal when they do have the ball resemble a Mike D’Antoni fast break. This is a team that frustrated the Americans in the Gold Cup this summer, beating the Yanks in group play and going down in the semifinal only due to a moment of sheer quality from the US on the counterattack. This is also a team that has dominated CONCACAF qualifying for the World Cup thus far, boasting an eye-opening 13 goal differential. Grant Wahl went as far to say that they will qualify for the 2014 World Cup last week on the SI Podcast (with some guests you’ve heard of), and it is hard to argue with that endorsement if Panama continue to play inspired, and (somewhat) disciplined football.

Make no mistake, this is a good team; a team that, along with Jamaica, will make CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tougher than it’s ever been for the modern incarnation of the USMNT. But you know who should be really scared? Honduras. After all, this is the third Panama match preview I’ve written in the past seven months! That’s an irritating honor usually reserved for the Hondurans. And it’s a shorter jump than you’d think from irritating US Soccer bloggers to irritating the world as the third CONCACAF team in Brazil.

US Player to Watch: Michael Parkhurst

The nod here could have just as easily gone to one of Parkhurst’s potential defensive partners in this match, like Geoff Cameron, A.J. De La Garza, or Jeff Parke. But Michael Parkhurst doesn’t have the benefit of youth, or of playing in the MLS. Excellence in our fair domestic league doesn’t usually give a player a national team advantage over someone doing well in Europe, but the Danish Superliga doesn’t get the cred that the big European leagues do. Taking into account the fact that Parkhurst just turned 28 years old, he’s effectively an over the hill center half playing his club football in chilly Scandinavian exile.

Michael Parkhurst is a steady one-on-one defender. It is no accident Klinsmann called him in for THIS friendly.

Those challenging factors create a very real sense of urgency for Parkhurst, who played a great match against Venezuela on Saturday night. What he lacks distribution from the back (he’s not Geoff Cameron, who also played well against Venezuela), he more than made up for with solid positioning and no-nonsense defending. Again: that’s a crucial thing against the talented one-on-one forwards the Panamanians boast. Parkhurst is having a career year as a defensive leader for Nordsjælland, and if he can string together a second straight impressive performance with the USMNT, he’ll most likely earn another national team call-up heading into World Cup qualifying. The same goes for Cameron and De La Garza, each of whom could be called upon with Omar Gonzalez on the shelf.

Panama Player to Watch: Blas Pérez

And here’s the reason why the American central defenders will be much more interesting to watch against Panama than they were in the Venezuela match. Blas Pérez will pressurize the American backline, even if the Yanks do out-possess Panama to the same tune that they did Venezuela. Venezuela’s B-team had no forward close to the caliber of Pérez, who also happens to be on a continuous goal-scoring tear with the national team. Blas will be looking to use this match to send a message about what he’s planning to do in the MLS this season. Look for the new FC Dallas forward (NOTE: HE IS GOING TO DOMINATE IN MLS) to ask serious questions of the US center backs everytime he gets the ball. Here’s hoping they’ve got the answers.

Prediction: Panama 1 – 1 USA

This match has draw written all over it. My only question was whether we’d see goals or not. Hopefully I’m wrong, and we’re all talking about the Brek Shea hat trick tomorrow.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon

Jon Levy