It's pretty simple: The winner of this match almost certainly finishes first in Group C. Both the United States and Panama dispatched their first Gold Cup opponents with relative ease — the Stars and Stripes solidly outplayed Canada and the Central American squad survived a late comeback from a disorganized Guadeloupe side.
Now they face each other in Tampa, Fla. It's not quite a winner-take-all scenario, but six points will get a team through to the next round and mean they only need a draw in their third match to win Group C.
There is a long history between the two sides at the tournament, with the US knocking Panama out of the last three Gold Cups. The Red Tide took the US to extra time in the 2005 final and a late Carlos Bocanegra goal served as the difference in the '07 quarterfinals. Overall, the Americans have never lost to Julio Dely Valdés' team in the regional championship, posting a 3-0-1 record. (They also boast a 6-0-2 all-time record.)
The match at Raymond James Stadium will add to the legacy. Panama feature a tight defense that will bunker in and hope to withstand the US attack. It will work, but not for the entire match. The Americans are due for a breakout game, and Saturday is the night.
Bob Bradley's American team did exactly what they needed to do against Canada, shaking off the poor outing against Spain and dispatching their northern neighbors with relative ease. It was not a perfect performance by any means, but it got the job done. The US controlled the ball, controlled the game and controlled the score line.
Now, phase two: Dominate. Against Canada, the result wasn't assured until Clint Dempsey's second goal. (And even then, there were some nervy moments.) The Americans need to do better to create chances — and finish them — when they have the majority of the possession. This isn't a new problem for the team, but the match against Panama represents an opportunity for more practice.
With that in mind, expect Bradley to keep a similar lineup to the one he used against Canada. A win on Saturday means the coach can sub out anyone who needs a rest in the game against Guadeloupe. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones will control the middle of the field, feeding Jozy Altidore — can he continue his attacking mojo? — and Juan Agudelo. The back-line pairing of Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson will have less to do than it did against Canada, but look for the tall Goodson to get into the mix on the offensive end.
The goal of Valdés' squad is to minimize damage. A one-goal loss leaves them with a great opportunity to finish second in the group, with a final winner-take-all match against Canada next week. The team is solid throughout, but doesn't possess any explosive talents like the Maple Leafs' Josh Simpson or Simeon Jackson, both of whom troubled the American fullbacks.
Forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Pérez are the most dangerous attackers on the Panamanian roster. The former netted a goal and created another for his strike partner against Guadeloupe, but he won't find as much space against the US. Still, Ream and Goodson are relatively new partners, so perhaps he can capitalize on a miscommunication. (Notably, Tim Howard increased his normally vocal presence against Canada to help the pair.)
The midfield duo of Gabriel Gómez and Amílcar Henríquez will be another key. If they can gum up the US attack, los Canaleros can escape with a result.
United States: Juan Agudelo
This seems like the perfect opportunity for the young New York Red Bulls striker to find the back of the net. He should see plenty of the ball and can use his speed and skill to make some magic.
Panama: Jaime Penedo
The goalkeeper will be under duress all night as the Americans can expect to have plenty of the ball. Penedo, who plays for Municipal in Guatemala, was a member of the 2005 squad that made it to the finals. He'll need to be on his game for Panama to gain a result.
United States Projected Starting XI
Howard; Cherundolo, Ream, Goodson, Bocanegra, Donovan, Bradley, Jones, Dempsey, Altidore, Agudelo
Panama Projected Starting XI
Penedo; Machado, Dasent, Baloy, L. Henríquez, Cooper, A. Henríquez, Gómez, Baronha, Pérez, Tejada