PANAMA CITY, Panama – The US take on Panama Wednesday night in a road match that may not be quite what it seems (8:30 pm ET, ESPN3, Galavisión, LIVE CHAT on MLSsoccer.com).
While playing the Red Fury in Panama City undoubtedly presents the typical Central American road-trip challenge – one that Jurgen Klinsmann sought out in taking his team south at the end of a grueling three-week camp – Panama coach Julio Dely Valdés has called in a mostly U-23 squad in preparation for March’s Olympic qualifying tournament in the US.
So despite the home-field advantage, the young Panama team may have trouble with a slightly more senior squad from the north, comprising mostly MLS-based players. But even if Panama decide to bunker down and defend, Klinsmann thinks that will present a useful challenge for a team likely to face defensive-minded foes and adversity on the road to the World Cup.
“You don’t know how they’re going to approach it, like Venezuela, which didn’t come to play with us,” Klinsmann told reporters on Tuesday, recalling the US' victory last weekend. “Venezuela came to destroy the game, simple as that. We expected a Venezuela that wants to play, but the coach decided differently.”
Klinsmann cited the adversity overcome in this past Saturday night’s win in Glendale, Ariz., as a positive lesson for his young team. The labored 1-0 victory came on a Ricardo Clark goal deep into stoppage time after a series of fantastic stops by the Venezuelan 'keeper and a number of would-be penalties for the Americans that went uncalled.
“For the players to go through that process is very important,” Klinsmann said. “They have to keep their composure and not freaking out because the referee saw a penalty now the fifth time, he still didn’t give it. We had to wait until the 97th minute [to score].
“But maybe [Wednesday, Panama will] just decide to bunker in – and how do you break them down?” the German tactician continued. “I expect the guys to set the tone and keep the pressure up. Maybe they run out of gas … because it would be understandable at the end of camp, but we want them to keep pushing.”
For his part, Dely Valdés relayed nothing but respect for the American program, even after leading his country to its first victory over the US in last summer’s Gold Cup. He believes the Americans have become even more organized and more dangerous in the attack under Klinsmann’s stewardship.
“It’s going to be a tough game,” Dely Valdés told reporters. “We saw the game last week against Venezuela, and the truth is you can tell, you can see the work of Klinsmann. They defend well, they win the ball and they attack very quickly with a lot of people. It’s a very organized team.”
Both squads have players that will participate in the Olympic qualifiers in March, and the countries could very well meet in the all-important winner-take-all semifinal round. But Dely Valdés says the game will also be a measuring stick for his team as Panama head into World Cup qualifying with their sights set on the nation’s first-ever ticket to the big dance.
“The US is already thinking of what will happen in the World Cup, not like Panama,” he said. “Panama is a team that has developed a lot in the last few years, but one that still wants to be among the best in the region. That’s work we still have to do, and 2011 motivated us a lot to get to that goal.”
With a US side clearly out of its comfort zone in Central America, and a young Panamanian team on the verge of bigger things, it’s reasonable to expect the unexpected Wednesday night at Estadio Rommel Fernández. But whatever comes his team’s way, it’s clear Klinsmann expects his players to attack the challenge head on.