ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: Friday against Panama is a must-win game. Don't let anyone tell you any different. The guys preview the US national team's second-to-last World Cup qualifier from top to bottom, then invite Panamanian journalist David Sakata (18:49) on to re-live the national nightmare ushered in by San Zusi's goal in 2013. Stick around for MLS banter and the mailbag. Subscribe now and "Like" our Facebook page so you never miss a show! Download this episode!
It's not technically a must-win game, but let's face it: It's a must-win game. The USMNT will play their final home qualifier of this World Cup cycle in Orlando on Friday night (7 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, UDN) and it's against Panama, the team that sits just above them in the Hexagonal table. A loss or a draw likely means a desperation, last-day scrap for fourth place and the subsequent playoff against Australia or Syria. A win means the US have something like a 95 percent chance of finishing third, which means...
All the tension of the last month, since that dispiriting 2-0 loss to Costa Rica, disappears. It becomes a footnote.
Howard sounds confident, and Bruce Arena sounds confident, and that's how they should sound ahead of a home game against a less-talented opponent.
Panama's a really organized, really committed team (and we don't even have to mention how gamesmanshippy they are, right?). They've got a bunch of guys who've been around forever, dragging this program from the fringes of CONCACAF's decent, mid-tier programs to the fringes of the World Cup itself. Win and they're in.
But the US have more talent, and in our game talent is the decisive factor about 80 percent of the time. They have to figure out how to impose that upon their opponents without leaving the back door open.
What Panama Will Do
• Sit deep in a back four with a double pivot
How does one break down the tactical intent of a locked door? Panama's defense has been superb as they've conceded just five goals in their eight qualifiers, tied with Costa Rica for second best in the Hexagonal (behind only Mexico).
They do it in the most straight-forward and basic way: A back four with a double-pivot of defensive midfielders as the shield. You'll recognize a good chunk of the names involved, like Seattle center back Roman Torres, Houston center back Adolfo Machado, Red Bulls right back Michael Murillo and San Jose center mid Anibal Godoy.
The variation comes in front of that group. On the road, head coach Hernan Dario Gomez has usually preferred a 4-2-3-1 with the ageless Luis Tejada as a sort of floating, false 9. At home it's been variations on a 4-4-2, sometimes with the equally ageless Blas Perez involved (and it was also a 4-4-2 against the US in the Gold Cup, a 1-1 draw). There's a lot of craft and knowhow in that front line.
Regardless, few risks are taken. Numbers aren't really pushed forward. If they have their way, the game doesn't open up – they just absorb what you throw at them, and then counter in the other direction. Sometimes all it takes is one dude to get that daylight...
It's not fun to watch a team go out there and play, all-out, to keep a zero on the board. Panama don't care about fun, though. They care about advancing to the World Cup, and an ultra-defensive posture is the best way to get there.
What the US Should Do
• Play compact through the middle and send runners through the lines
The biggest issue I've had with Arena is his old-fashioned insistence upon playing a 4-4-2 with the wide midfielders getting chalk on their boots. I understand the theory behind it – ideally by holding the ball wide, you're forcing the opponent to come out of the middle to meet you, or at the very least turning the game into a series of 2-v-1s that can be used to get around the edge. This is a great way to win a game in 1998.
In practice, in 2017, it's been damn near useless. Keeping the wide midfielders that wide has opened up the US central midfield, leaving Michael Bradley and insert center mid partner here constantly out-manned in the most important part of the pitch. The game as it's played now demands compactness and second-ball dominance there, which the US have too often lacked.
Arena has to address that, and I've a pretty good idea how:
The best moments for the US during qualifying have been with Christian Pulisic central, as a No. 10. Play him there in either a 3-5-2 or a 4-2-3-1, and suddenly the US will have a lot more purpose and dynamism in the middle of the field, and one more player in the mix to win the occasional second ball and keep the lines tight. You forfeit those built-into-the-formation 2-v-1s on the flank for this, but I'm fine with that. Arena should be, too.
Pulisic also offers the sort of "through-the-lines" speed and intentionality that is the key to unlocking disciplined but somewhat static defenses like Panama's. Nobody from their group registers as "quick" or "fast," so as good as they are at keeping the game in front of them, they really can struggle when pulled apart and forced to scramble, i.e...
They're not designed to track the sort of bursting, line-breaking runs that have been a hallmark of Pulisic's game.
The issue is how to line the team up around him. If it's a 4-2-3-1, that means two out of Jozy Altidore, Bobby Wood and Clint Dempsey start on the bench, which is hard to imagine. If it's a 3-5-2 you can pick two of those guys up top with Pulisic in the playmaking hole behind them, a No. 8 deeper next to Bradley, and still have the "chalk on their boots" option in the likely wingbacks (should Bruce go with the 3-5-2), DeAndre Yedlin on the right and Jorge Villafaña on the left.
A few more variables that we'll tackle bullet-point style:
• I really hope that Alejandro Bedoya is the No. 8 that Arena goes with. He's been in better form there than the other options, his off-the-ball work remains superb, he's an elite help defender (which neither Darlington Nagbe nor Kellyn Acosta have really been), and he's still better than most realize at playing the pass before the pass:
• If the US do go with a back three, that will demand more in terms of distribution from the defenders than the usual four-back set, which almost always funnels play through Bradley at defensive midfield. This is fine by me, as Matt Besler, Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron are all excellent playing from the back (Cameron's nightmare against the Ticos notwithstanding), and Omar Gonzalez is adequate.
• Panama have been killer on restarts, including their goal from March's 1-1 draw in Panama City. The US have been vulnerable on restarts. Bear this in mind.