The Throw-In: Is Panama the next big thing in MLS?

Throw-In: Perez

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“Jump back! What’s that sound?”

The words of the inimitable David Lee Roth echoed in our ears last summer as we watched in horror while Panama bashed through both the US and Canada in somewhat stunning fashion at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

There wasn’t much beautiful soccer in what Los Canaleros did, but they sure were effective – playing an organized, disciplined game, falling behind the ball cautiously and waiting for opportune moments to strike. They stunned the hosts in Tampa, with a 2-1 victory that still rankles most US fans, then twisted the knives into the Canadians with a stoppage-time equalizer in Kansas City that eliminated the shocked Canucks.

Panama’s dream died in Houston when Clint Dempsey saved the American bacon in the semifinals. But it was about that time when fans, pundits and even players began predicting that the cat was out of the bag with Panama and we’d soon see several of them coming to Major League Soccer.

It’s happened – kind of. Blas Pérez and Carlos Rodríguez have joined FC Dallas, while Gabriel Gómez is with Philadelphia. All three are veterans of that Gold Cup squad, and this season will mark the most Panamanians in the league at one time in league history.

But that windfall many expected? It hasn’t happened yet. Even with the new trio, that makes the historical total to seven – which, among Central American nations, ranks Panama ahead of only Nicaragua and Belize in producing MLS players.

It turns out that phenomenal Gold Cup performance – and really, Panama have been solid at every recent Gold Cup – wasn’t the showcase we thought it would be. But it did serve as a widely watched platform for what Panamanians can do, according to Montreal Impact assistant coach Mike Sorber, who was on the sidelines for three US-Panama Gold Cup encounters during his six years as Bob Bradley’s right-hand man.

“Over the past few years, as a national team, they’ve brought a discipline and an organization that – I think you saw when they played us – gives them a chance to compete,” Sorber told MLSsoccer.com. “So they have the good soccer, the athleticism and some good size. That combination, with some international experience, makes them good candidates for the league.”

It’s safe to say Panama is on most MLS teams’ watch lists. Colorado head coach Oscar Pareja told MLSsoccer.com he’s watching the Central American republic’s players closely and believes their skill sets fit into his vision for how he wants his Rapids to play.

FC Dallas head coach Schellas Hyndman tells MLSsoccer.com that he has a handful of Panamanians on his Discovery List – which is how FCD landed Pérez, Rodríguez and nearly Gómez (at right), too. He estimates more than half of MLS clubs have made Discovery claims on Canaleros, too.

“Panama is up and coming in terms of their recognition within our geographic area,” Philadelphia Union head of scouting and player development Diego Gutiérrez – the man who actually landed Gómez – told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday. “But it’s no secret they’re starting produce more players. They remind me a bit of Venezuela, which used to be just a baseball country and nearly made it to the last World Cup.”

Pérez and Gómez in particular are pedigreed players – they have three and four Gold Cups, respectively, under their belts, and both have experience in European leagues and the Mexican Primera División. Rodríguez, meanwhile, is a young up-and-comer who dazzled Hyndman and his staff during CONCACAF Champions League play last year.

But other names keep getting linked in various reports to MLS teams: winger Armando Cooper, center backs Eduardo Dasent and Román Torres, even onetime Real Salt Lake striker Luis Tejada. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So even if the Gold Cup wasn’t an immediate call to arms, it was certainly a microcosm of the changing economics of MLS. Panamanians represent the ultimate diamond in the rough for teams in our league: skillful, strong, fast, technically sound players who can be had on the cheap. They’re not all that different from Hondurans, Ecuadorians or even MLS’ flavor of the month, Colombians.

What the tournament illustrated was the fact that no stone should go unturned in the search for talent, especially as the league grows in size. And Panama is just one of many prime locations. Kyle Beckerman, for one, is certainly paying closer attention.

“I think maybe [the Gold Cup] gave everyone in MLS, the American soccer fan, the media and everyone, that made us all more aware of them than we have been in the past,” the US international and RSL captain told MLSsoccer.com. “When [a performance like theirs happens], now we all watch and say, ‘Who is doing well for them?’ We watch them closer after that.”

Keep watching. Panama’s coming-out party has only begun.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.