US looking forward to Gold Cup Group B test against "very good" Panama team

Bruce Arena - US national team - USMNT

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – The US men’s national team can finally to get to work preparing for the 2017 CONCACAF Gold Cup, as Tuesday saw the draw for the group stage of the region’s biennial championship tournament announced at Levi’s Stadium, site of the final on July 26.

The US will be joined in Group B by Panama, Martinique, and the winner of the play-in home-and-away series between Haiti and Nicaragua to be played later this month. The class of the three opponents is without a doubt Panama, who the US will also face in World Cup qualifying in three weeks as part of the Hexagonal.

“I’m familiar with Panama,” said US head coach Bruce Arena. “Obviously I’ve seen them for a number of years and they have a number of players in Major League Soccer. They’ve been a very good team in CONCACAF over the last five or six years. It will be a tough match.”

Arena, who took over the national team program from Jurgen Klinsmann in November following two losses to open the 10-game Hex, added that his tenure as coach of the LA Galaxy gave him a lot of exposure to many of Panama’s international stars, and he’ll use that knowledge when assembling his roster ahead of this summer’s Gold Cup tournament. However, the coach acknowledged that there is a lot of time between now and the US’s opening match against Panama on July 8 in Nashville.

“The rosters will certainly have some changes along the way,” said Arena. “What they are right now, I couldn’t tell you. Certainly in July, we would like to bring in some new faces as well to complement our team. We haven’t made any decisions yet as to what we will do at the Gold Cup, but we’re going to bring as strong a team as we can.”

The US will be seeking a measure of revenge when it faces Panama in the Gold Cup. It was Los Canaleros that beat the US in the third-place game of the 2015 tournament, keeping the Yanks off the Gold Cup medal stand for the first time since a quarterfinal loss to Colombia in the 2000 event. Four years ago, in the 2013 Gold Cup Final, the US beat Panama 1-0 to capture its fifth tournament championship.

“It’s going to be challenging,” said Arena, “and it’s likely we will be playing one of the strongest teams in our group in the first match. That game is going to be important.”

The US will continue Group B play with a July 12 match against Martinique in Tampa followed three days later with a contest against the Haiti/Nicaragua play-in winner in Cleveland. The US has only faced Martinique one time before, defeating the French overseas department 2-0 during the 2003 Gold Cup, back when Arena was in his first tour of duty in charge of the national team. Needless to say, he had no scouting report for the unheralded 2017 Caribbean Cup semifinalists.

“In all honesty, I know very little about Martinique,” said Arena, “and I know very little about Haiti and Nicaragua, so we’ll have to do a little work and get caught up to speed with those countries as well.”

In terms of priorities for the US, the Gold Cup could be looked at as a secondary pursuit this year, especially with the campaign to qualify for the 2018 World Cup taking center stage. But Arena dismissed such an idea, and he detailed a broader view of the team’s goals in 2017.

“We can’t allow for peaks and valleys during the course of the year,” said Arena. “We have to start in March and get points in World Cup qualifying, do the same in June, have a good tournament in the Gold Cup in July, and have the momentum necessary to be successful in September and October. A perfect year would end with us qualified for the World Cup as well as winners of the Gold Cup.”