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THE GENERATION THAT ALMOST DID GETS ONE LAST SHOT AT GLORY
Blas Perez is 34, Luis Tejada, Luis Henriquez and Jaime Penedo are 33, Gabriel Gomez is 31, and Felipe Baloy is already gone. Those six players are the generation that transformed Panama from a CONCACAF minnow into a legitimately terrifying team to play in any venue. Panama was a baseball nation before these guys arrived; now they live and die with soccer.
But because the game is cruel, this group will almost certainly be defined by what they didn't do rather than what they did. In summer of 2013 they made it all the way to the Gold Cup final, then gave a good account of themselves with a 1-0 loss against a US team that had been pounding the hell out of all comers. Four months later they came within minutes of securing the fourth-place spot in the Hexagonal – and a subsequent playoff against New Zealand for a berth at Brazil 2014 – before switching off and allowing late goals to Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson.
Hearts were broken and tears were shed. And now it's once more unto the breach for this group of local gods, one last shot at glory before it's time to say farewell.
GROUP A SCHEDULE
THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH
Blas Perez, F, FC Dallas: Just go ahead and admit that you love to hate Blas Perez. He is the Darth Palpatine of Dark Arts, knowing and employing each and every trick in the book – whatever it takes to get an edge. Step on a defender's foot just before a set piece? Check. Hip check before going up for a header? Check. Rake the studs across an Achilles off the ball in order to muck up the game? Oh, you know that's happening.
But all that nonsense obscures just how brilliant a player Perez is. His vision and creativity with his back to goal remain top-shelf, and few are better at bringing his wingers into the game. His ability to lock down the central defenders with his movement, skill and strength is the foundation upon which the last decade of Panamanian success has been built.
Darwin Pinzon, M, Sporting San Miguelito: If there's a great hope for the next Panamanian generation – at least until the current, impressive-as-hell U-20 group are ready to take over – it's at the feet of Pinzon. The diminutive (5-foot-3) playmaker made his debut last summer and already has three goals in his six caps. He'll probably pop up on one of the wings, though he could end up playing directly underneath Perez as a true No. 10.
Harold Cummings, D, Santa Fe: Cummings has slid into the "everyday start" role once owned by Baloy, and already has 31 caps despite his relative youth – he's just 23 years old. He and Roman Torres will form a typically physical and tough central defensive duo for the rest of the decade.
Hernan Dario Gomez is one of the most familiar coaching faces in the Americas, having managed four different national teams across CONCACAF and CONMEBOL, including two different stops with his native Colombia. He took over after the late collapse in the 2013 Hexagonal cost Julio Dely Valdes his job, and while a recent 4-0 drubbing by Ecuador could make it seem like the Panamanians are easy meat, don't be fooled: They went unbeaten in last year's Copa Centroamericana, and this past March went on the road to beat Trinidad & Tobago 1-0, then followed it up with a convincing 2-1 home win over a full-strength Costa Rica.
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GOLD CUP HISTORY
They are the kings of coming oh-so-close, finishing third in 2011 and runners-up in both 2005 (lost to the USA on penalties) and 2013 (lost 1-0). Remarkably, five key players from that 2005 group are back, and 14 return from the 2011 roster. Prior to 2005 they'd made the tournament only once, falling in the group stage in 1993. Starting in 2005, they've qualified for every edition and – bizarrely – have fallen to the US at varying points in the knockout round each and every time.
Perez plies his trade in Frisco for FC Dallas, and has tallied 36 goals and 14 assists in his 88-game (so far) MLS career... Penedo joined the LA Galaxy midway through the 2013 season, and backstopped the team to the 2014 MLS Cup... Gabriel Torres was signed as a DP by the Colorado Rapids in the summer of 2013, but has managed only 10 goals and four assists in his 47 games... Gomez spent the 2012 season with the Philadelphia Union before moving back to Central America... Midfielder Rolando Escobar joined Perez in Dallas this year, but the 33-year-old midfielder – who has 38 career caps – didn't make the final roster.