USA vs. Panama
Tuesday, June 11, 10 pm ET
CenturyLink Field, Seattle
Watch on ESPN (broadcast starts at 9:30 pm ET), UniMas
Live chat on MLSsoccer.com
After taking points from two straight road Hexagonal qualifiers, the US national team returns to familiar shores to battle Panama at Seattle's CenturyLink Field, the first of two important home games that could put the USA in the driver's seat heading into the final stages of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
The USMNT will be missing starters Graham Zusi (suspended) and Jermaine Jones (concussion), while striker Herculez Gomez has left the team to mend a nagging knee problem. But they remain the solid favorites against a Panama squad recently robbed of perhaps its most important single ingredient, crafty striker Blas Pérez, due to gastroentiritis.
Los Canaleros have yet to lose in the Hex, but have already dropped valuable points at home via draws with Costa Rica and Mexico and presently sit fourth in the standings with tough trips to Costa Rica, Mexico and Honduras still to come.
The US have been dominant in this matchup through the years, owning an 8-1-2 overall record against Panama, including a 7-1-1 home mark. All but one of those meetings occurred in CONCACAF play, whether Gold Cup or World Cup qualifying.
Many current USMNT fans will remember that one setback, however: a galling 2-1 group-stage loss in Tampa in the 2011 Gold Cup. The US took revenge with a victory over La Marea Roja when they met in the tournament's knockout stages, but the doubts about coach Bob Bradley and his team persisted and he was replaced by Jurgen Klinsmann after the 4-2 Gold Cup final loss to Mexico.
Seattle Sounders striker Eddie Johnson will recall a 2004 qualifying meeting with Panama fondly, as he came off the bench to score an historic hat trick in a 6-0 USA win at RFK Stadium on October 13 that trumpeted his arrival on the international stage.
Spirits are high in the Yanks camp after Friday's thrilling, last-ditch 2-1 win over Jamaica, their second win in their last three Hex games and a crucial three points on the path towards Brazil 2014. And beyond the scoreboard, there's reason for optimism.
Striker Jozy Altidore has turned his year-plus USMNT goal drought into a two-game scoring streak, Clint Dempsey has notched four goals in the five games since Klinsmann named him captain. And what looked like a totally patchwork defense a few months ago now has some semblance of stability as a motley, youngish back four of DaMarcus Beasley, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and Brad Evans seem to have won their coach's trust.
But the loss of fearsome midfield destroyer Jones and the challenge of replacing Zusi's sterling service from the right flank have complicated matters in Seattle. Geoff Cameron, Sacha Kljestan, Stuart Holden and Joe Corona are hoping that Klinsmann's reshuffling presents them with opportunities to fill the breach.
If the Hex ended tomorrow, Los Canaleros would finish fourth and thus meet Oceania champions New Zealand in a home-and-home playoff series. That might not be a bad final outcome for a small Central American nation where soccer traditionally battles baseball for primacy. But head coach Julio Dely Valdés – twin brother of former Colorado Rapids goalscorer Jorge Dely Valdés – knows the road ahead is difficult in this year's evenly balanced Hex.
He'll rue the absence of “Super Ratón” Pérez in the Emerald City but he still has weapons to wield, starting with Luis “Matador” Tejada, the onetime Real Salt Lake man who is notoriously streaky but capable of producing moments of utter brilliance. Young hitman Gabriel Torres – one of the country's brightest up-and-coming talent – could be an ace in the hole.
After a long trip to unfamiliar climes to face the USA in front of a partisan crowd, most observers expect Panama to sit in and bunker with an eye towards timely counterattacks. Felipe Baloy, their man-mountain of a center back, will be pivotal in organizing the rearguard.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA – Brad Evans
Fresh off those injury-time heroics in Kingston, the USMNT's newest hero now gets to play in front of his home fans. And his learn-on-the-job duties at right back come into even clearer focus this week thanks to the absence of usual starter Graham Zusi in the wing spot just in front of him. His ability to mesh quickly with Zusi's replacement – and his discipline in going forward against a Canaleros side who will look to exploit any vacancies he leaves at the back – will be decisive at C-Link.
Panama – Felipe Baloy
Ask any of the unfortunate MLS teams who have lost out to Santos Laguna in CONCACAF Champions League play over the years, and they'll concur: Baloy is a beast. Built like a linebacker with the mentality to match, the commanding center back will anchor a back line that has its work cut out for it with US strike duo Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore.
GOALKEEPERS : Brad Guzan (Aston Villa/England), Tim Howard (Everton/England), Nick Rimando (Real Salt Lake)
DEFENDERS: DaMarcus Beasley (Puebla/Mexico), Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City/England), Edgar Castillo (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Brad Evans (Seattle Sounders FC), Omar Gonzalez (LA Galaxy), Clarence Goodson (Brondby/Denmark), Fabian Johnson (Hoffenheim/Germany), Michael Parkhurst (Augsburg/Germany)
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (AS Roma/Italy), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana/Mexico), Brad Davis (Houston Dynamo), Stuart Holden (Bolton/England), Sacha Kljestan (Anderlecht/Belgium)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (AZ Alkmaar/Netherlands), Terrence Boyd (Rapid Vienna/Austria), Clint Dempsey (Tottenham Hotspur)/England, Eddie Johnson (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS: Luis Mejía (CA Fénix/Uruguay), Jaime Penedo (CSD Municipal/Guatemala), Alex Rodríguez (Sporting San Miguelito/Panama)
DEFENDERS: Felipe Baloy (Santos Laguna/Mexico), Roberto Chen (San Francisco FC/Panama), Harold Cummings (Árabe Unido/Panama), Luis Henríquez (Lech Poznan/Poland), Leonel Parris (Tauro FC/Panama), Román Torres (Millonarios/Colombia), Carlos Rodríguez (Chepo/Panama)
MIDFIELDERS: Nelson Barahona (Itagüí/Colombia), Armando Cooper (Godoy Cruz/Argentina), Rolando Escobar (Deportivo Anzoátegui/Venezuela), Anibal Godoy (Chorrillo FC/Panama), Gabriel Gómez (Junior/Colombia), Amílcar Henríquez (Independiente Medellín/Colombia), Juan de Díos Pérez (Tauro FC/Panama), Alberto Quintero (Chorrillo FC/Panama), Marcos Sánchez (unattached)
FORWARDS: Rolando Blackburn (FK Senica/Slovakia), Luis Tejada (Toluca/Mexico), Gabriel Torres (Zamora FC/Venezuela)