PANAMA CITY, Panama – The United States may be playing with house money on Tuesday, their place in Brazil next summer already guaranteed, but Jurgen Klinsmann isn’t letting his squad forget just how high the stakes are for their opponents.
While the Americans play for a victory that would tie a previous Hexagonal best of 22 points, Panama’s most grandiose soccer dream is a draw or defeat away from disappearing from view for another four years.
With eight points to Mexico’s 11, Panama’s only chance of finishing the Hex in fourth place, which brings with it a two-legged World Cup playoff against New Zealand, is to take three points from the US and hope Mexico lose in Costa Rica with goal differential splitting the difference in their favor.
Just don’t expect the United States, missing a sizeable chunk of their first-choice XI, to make that task any easier come Tuesday night at Estadio Rommel Fernández (9:30 pm ET, beIN Sport).
“This is World Cup qualifying. World Cup qualifying is very serious business,” Klinsmann told the gathered Panamanian press on Monday. “Everyone that is here is highly focused and wants to show a good game. Obviously we are happy that we are already qualified, but I told the players before the game last week that we are already preparing things for Brazil.
"Whoever goes on the field here has to show everything he has in order to build his case for Brazil.”
And there are still plenty of cases to be made even after a Hex campaign that saw Klinsmann’s squad go unbeaten at home without allowing a goal and lose just twice – the final-stage opener in Honduras and at a Costa Rica side eager to issue payback.
Panama, on the other hand, have managed just one win from nine matches – a 2-0 triumph against Honduras at Estadio Rommel Fernández. And despite making the Gold Cup final with a similar squad, they’ve failed to take advantage of a listless campaign from El Tri, a golden opportunity that slipped a bit further from reach when Raúl Jiménez’s bicycle kick turned a massive road draw into a gut-punch loss on Friday.
Now it all comes down to 90 make-or-break minutes for the Panamanians, something that comes as no surprise to Klinsmann despite the fact his team took care of business with two games to spare.
“This Hexagonal shows you how competitive CONCACAF is, how things can change in a short amount of time if you don’t get your points right away,” he said. “You might get nervous, things maybe happen with yellow cards, red cards or penalties not given or maybe with injuries, [or] all your top players, like a [Javier Hernández of Mexico], maybe doesn’t play right now at your top club. All these things played a role in this Hexagonal.
“That’s why it’s so difficult, that’s why you can’t take it easy – not even for one second. When you talk to people in Europe or South America, they realize now how difficult the Hexagonal is and that in many ways it’s a battle until the very last moment. It will be a battle tomorrow night until the very last moment for Panama and Mexico.”
In what should be must-watch television for any soccer fan in the region, the very last moment of both matches – set to kick off at the same time – could very well decide which team reaches their ultimate goal. If Klinsmann has anything to say about it, Mexico will be moving on win, lose or draw.
His mantra on Monday was straightforward: Regardless of Mexico’s fate, the US will do everything they can to finish the Hex with three points. Three points that would keep a desperate Panama from their first-ever World Cup.
“We expect a very energetic, highly motivated Panamanian side that will do everything possible within their capabilities to still make it happen,” Klinsmann said. “In football, things happen really quickly. An early goal suddenly in Costa Rica changes the dynamic in the stadium here, changes their belief. We are prepared for that. I think we have a team here that can win.”