SEATTLE – It’s probably a stretch to say Panama have the US national team’s number. But it’s a reasonable argument to say that La Marea Roja have given the US more trouble than any team in CONCACAF not named Mexico.
Two years ago, Panama and the US played through back-to-back slugfests in the Gold Cup, one a stunning Panamanian victory that marked the first-ever US loss in the tournament’s group stages, the other a payback American win in the semifinals.
In both games, the US came up against a highly organized, defensive-minded Panama unit that was near impossible to break down, yet with a surprising ability to counter and score.
Most of the members of that squad are present here in the Emerald City as the US prepare for Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier (10 pm ET, ESPN/UniMas, live chat on MLSsoccer.com). And thus far into the CONCACAF Hexagonal, they’re undefeated and are coming off back-to-back clean sheets thrown at Honduras and Mexico. The Americans know the task may be even tougher this time around.
“We know that they’re a strong team, they have veteran guys and they work really hard and they have that fighting spirit,” US midfielder Sacha Kljestan told MLSsoccer.com at training on Monday. “One of their things is that they want to be hard to play against, so we have to be patient.”
To put even further pressure on the USMNT is that this group of players is a golden generation of Panamanian talent that has been playing together for nearly a decade. The veteran core – goalkeeper Jaime Penedo; defenders Felipe Baloy, Román Torres and Luis Enríquez; midfielder Gabriel Gómez; strikers Blas Pérez and Luis Tejada – have been together since the 2005 Gold Cup, when it took a penalty shootout for the US to outlast them in the final.
With six points through four games of the Hex, they’re making one final push to get Panama to a place they’ve never been before: a World Cup.
“More than anything it’s a team, a group of guys who have played together over the course of a lot of years,” Michael Bradley told reporters on Monday. “I think they recognize that this is their chance to qualify for a World Cup. We have to understand their mentality and know what the game is going to be.”
That means the Panamanians will likely sit back and dare the US to press them. They used that strategy to perfection against Mexico last Friday in a 0-0 draw and have had great success against opponents by frustrating them.
The likelihood of that happening on Tuesday is perhaps even greater with FC Dallas standout Pérez – Panama’s No. 2 all-time leading scorer – out for the game while suffering through a bout of gastroenteritis. No. 1 all-time scorer Tejada is still a threat, as is former Philadelphia Union man Gómez. But given a tough road game in front of some 40,000 Seattle fans, it’s not a gamble to expect more of the same organized, defensive strategy.
“If that’s the case,” said Bradley, “it’s up to us to show right away with the speed of our movement, with the speed of our thinking, with how we start to play the ball around that now we’re going to start to impose ourselves on them and make sure we’re really getting after it.”
That could open the door for creative players in midfield like Kljestan, Joe Corona or even Eddie Johnson in a wide position to be tasked with figuring out ways to unlock a Panamanian approach that features, as Kljestan put it, “11 guys behind the ball that fight and are very physical.”
US captain Clint Dempsey does see one possible weakness in Panama.
“I would say that teams have had success against them in crosses, whether it’s set plays or getting the ball wide, getting crosses into the box,” he said at Monday’s press conference. “People are able to get on end of things and get goals that way. It’s about keeping possession good, and picking and choosing your moments when to take risks on the attacking third.”
Indeed, when the US finally got the better of Panama in the 2011 Gold Cup semis, it was off the foot of Dempsey, whose 77th-minute goal finished off a play that started with a cross from Freddy Adu on the right wing. It may take that kind of last-minute patience for the Americans to find their chance to unlock Panama on Tuesday.
“If we play the ball quickly,” said Dempsey, “one-two touch, have good movement on the ball, I think that we’ll be fine.”