Besides three vital points in the standings, the US men’s national team’s immediate reward for their convincing 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica in Austin was a four-hour-plus, 1,800-mile charter flight from Texas to Panama City. There they’ll enter the atmospheric Estadio Rommel Fernández Gutiérrez on Sunday evening (6 pm ET | Paramount+, Universo) for another pressure-packed test less than 72 hours after the last.
There’s no grind exactly like the Concacaf grind, especially during this cycle’s rigorous schedule of three-match windows. And few can grind as savagely as Panama, who have hauled themselves from also-rans to regional contenders with a tenacious identity based on physicality, defensive solidity, a rugged home-field advantage and the judicious application of cynicism as needed.
“I’d say they’ve been very consistent. They don't let up a lot of chances. They have the second-lowest expected goals [against] of the first four games,” said USMNT coach Gregg Berhalter of Los Canaleros during Saturday’s pregame press conference. “Strong defensive team, heavy crossing team. … It's a good team. It's a very physically strong team. They'll be very aggressive in duels, they're very good attacking in the penalty box.”
Though they’re fresh off a rain-soaked 1-0 loss at El Salvador on Thursday, Panama tend to be a different beast in the Canal Zone. They held Costa Rica and Mexico to draws in their first two home games of this Octagonal and lost just once on the scruffy grass of Rommel Fernández – that dramatic last-ditch USMNT comeback win that spawned the “San Zusi” meme in 2013 – across both the 2014 and 2018 Hexagonals.
They also know how to wield the dark arts, which is probably a factor in Kellyn Acosta taking center stage at the matchday-1 media availability, generally a sign that a player is set for a key role in the impending game.
As Sports Illustrated, Defector and others have colorfully profiled, the Colorado Rapids midfielder is as good as anyone on the current roster at the gamesmanship that tends to crop up in this region, including a gift for smack-talking that took center stage on big Concacaf Nations League and Gold Cup occasions earlier this year.
“I mean, I wouldn't say I'm an expert at it,” said Acosta with a chuckle when asked about that particular facet of his extensive skill set. “But it's something, sometimes you just need that in the game to help others, whether it's boost players around you or try to have that competitive advantage.
“It's kind of that experience that you need in these types of games to help guys on the team,” he added. “Panama, it's a team that's very clever in things that they do … we've got to match whatever comes our way and obviously use our advantages that we can.”
Both history and circumstances seem to portend a bruising, choppy affair on Sunday. Panama manager Thomas Christiansen has admitted that the Rommel Fernández playing surface hasn't been in the best of shape lately, and with October usually among the tropical nation’s wettest periods, the thunderstorms that dot the weekend forecast could bog it down even further. With their hosts in acute need of a positive result, the USMNT are bracing for a streetfight.
“Panama is definitely a very physical team, aggressive team. We’ve got to be able to match that right away,” said Acosta. “And obviously they didn't get a great result against El Salvador last go-around. Now coming back home, they're looking to, from the first minute, take it to us. So we need to be ready for that and match the intensity and bring the game to them and weather the storm – the first 10, 15 minutes – and be able to adapt.”
It’s already guaranteed that Berhalter will make at least two adjustments to Thursday’s starting XI, with left back Antonee Robinson (as well as goalkeeper Zack Steffen) skipping this trip due to British travel restrictions on “red list” countries like Panama that would impose quarantines when they return to their English clubs. And Weston McKennie has been sent directly to Columbus, the site of Wednesday’s qualifier vs. Costa Rica, to skip the rigors of international travel as he rehabs what’s said to be a minor quadriceps issue.
The coach might well ring a few more changes, considering the draining slate of three games in seven days and the different demands this clash likely poses relative to Thursday's Jamaica win. Notably, Panama have exercised almost no squad rotation during the Ocho thus far, hinting at a lack of depth and possibly an opportunity for the US to bring their fitness, and the strength of their reserves, to bear.
Berhalter framed it a bit differently.
“It's an advantage for Panama because it's continuity, they're playing together all the time,” he contended. “If you get them early in the window, they're not fatigued, they’re not tired. So tomorrow I think it'll be a good game. They're going to be fresh, they’re going to probably play a similar lineup. [Houston Dynamo FC midfielder Adalberto] Carrasquilla has been out this whole window, so he won’t play, but other than that, they have a good strong team.”
Berhalter dodged a question about whether his team will look to aggressively set the tone or sit back in a cagier posture. Acosta, for his part, wants the former.
“It's important to take the game to them, rather than trying to adapt to what they're bringing,” said the Rapids star, with 41 caps making him the third-most experienced USMNT squad member. “First and foremost is that intensity is the starting point for us, and being aggressive and winning our duels. We want to create the first chance and apply pressure right away. Because when you don't, you're in for a game. We saw in El Salvador, where we didn't take a strong hold right away, and we were in for a rough one at the beginning.”