USA vs. Panama
Gold Cup Group B
Saturday, July 8 – 4:30 pm ET
Nissan Stadium – Nashville, Tennessee
TV: FOX, Univision, UDN in US; TSN2, TSN GO in Canada | Follow on the MLS App
The United States kick off their campaign for a sixth Gold Cup title with what is likely to be their toughest match of the group stage, an encounter with Panama on the banks of the Cumberland River in Music City.
Veteran US fans know better than to be fooled by Panama’s small size – the isthmus nation is home to fewer than four million residents – and relative lack of hardware in this tournament. Los Canaleros are a potent CONCACAF underdog who have inflicted damage on the Yanks in previous editions of this event, most recently and painfully in the 2015 Gold Cup, where they knocked off the favored hosts in the third-place game via a penalty-kick shootout.
These two nations are the pre-tournament favorites to claim the top two spots (and thus automatic advancement to the knockout stages) in Group B ahead of Cinderellas Martinique and Nicaragua. So while Panama won’t be crushed by a USMNT victory, they could make their task much easier by snatching a draw in this affair.
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While the squad called up by coach Bruce Arena is marked by youth and relative inexperience at international level, the vibes appear to be good in the US camp heading into the tournament. Last weekend’s 2-1 friendly win over Ghana was a well-earned result that built confidence for many, starting with striker Dom Dwyer, who scored on his debut for his naturalized country.
New England’s Kelyn Rowe also enjoyed a solid outing on his maiden appearance, and it was a good day for Kellyn Acosta, who netted the winner on a free kick and seems to have earned a major role in midfield despite being a relatively new arrival to the USMNT setup. Meanwhile the Liga MX-based duo of Joe Corona and Jorge Villafaña did their part to stake claims for starting roles this month, as did holding midfielder Dax McCarty.
The only obvious setback for the US at present: A groin injury for another newcomer, Kenny Saief, who has been ruled out for the tournament and was replaced on the roster by Philadelphia Union winger Chris Pontius on Wednesday.
All that optimism will be tested against Panama – a side which has no difficulties or hesitations with grinding games into a sloppy, ill-tempered pulp – however.
It’s been a very good century so far for the Canaleros. Panama have grown into mainstays of the Hexagonal, CONCACAF’s final round of World Cup qualifying, and forged deep runs in the Gold Cup, finishing runners-up in 2005 and 2013 and taking third place in 2011 and 2015.
But that also underlines the summits they’ve yet to reach. The Central Americans have never won the Gold Cup, and were cruelly denied fourth place and a spot in the intercontinental World Cup playoff with Oceania in the last Hex. That’s when Graham Zusi famously dug out a late win for the US in Panama City to hand that opportunity to Mexico instead (El Tri took full advantage by thrashing New Zealand in the playoff and cruising to Brazil 2014).
Coach Hernan Dario Gomez has announced his intention to shift towards youth a bit this summer, leaving veteran striker and MLS alum Blas Perez off this roster, as well as his longtime attacking partner Luis Tejada. It’s hoped that Abdiel Arroyo and Ricardo Clarke will step up to fill their boots.
Seattle Sounders defender Roman Torres will also sit this one out to focus on club duty after an injury-plagued few years, while the familiar face of Jaime Penedo – who backstopped the LA Galaxy during their 2014 MLS Cup title run – will not be manning the nets due to preseason activities with Romanian powerhouse Dinamo Bucharest.
The USMNT has traditionally dominated Panama, holding an 11-1-5 all-time record in the matchup and memorably breaking their hearts in the final minutes of 2014 World Cup qualifying. But that belies the Central Americans’ dramatic progress from regional punching bags to CONCACAF contenders over the past decade, including and especially in Gold Cup play.
Perhaps ominously for Arena & Co, Los Canaleros’ only win over the US to date came in the group stage of the 2011 Gold Cup, and they sprung an upset on a listless USA side in the third-place game of the 2015 edition by winning in penalty kicks. This is the teams’ second meeting of this calendar year; they tied 1-1 in a Hexagonal qualifier in Panama City in March.
Players to Watch
USA – Dax McCarty
A few questions remain regarding Arena’s choices for the starting lineup vs. Panama, but McCarty’s role at the base of midfield does not appear to be one of them. Despite a relative paucity of senior-national-team experience, the Chicago Fire star was composed and incisive in the win over Ghana, striking up a promising partnership with Acosta. The path is clear for him to make the Gold Cup the Dax Show.
Panama – Anibal Godoy
A powerful central midfield presence for the San Jose Earthquakes, Godoy will be key to Los Canaleros’ hopes of matching the USMNT in the engine-room battle, which figures to be a pivotal area on Saturday. He’s rangy, gritty and capable of conjuring up a spectacular strike from distance now and then.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta United FC), Bill Hamid (D.C. United), Sean Johnson (New York City FC)
DEFENDERS (8): Matt Besler (Sporting Kansas City), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca, MEX), Matt Hedges (FC Dallas), Eric Lichaj (Nottingham Forest, ENG), Matt Miazga (Chelsea, ENG), Justin Morrow (Toronto FC), Jorge Villafaña (Santos Laguna, MEX), Graham Zusi (Sporting Kansas City)
MIDFIELDERS (9): Kellyn Acosta (FC Dallas), Paul Arriola (Club Tijuana, MEX), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia Union), Joe Corona (Club Tijuana, MEX), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Chris Pontius (Philadelphia Union), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders FC), Kelyn Rowe (New England Revolution), Gyasi Zardes (LA Galaxy)
FORWARDS (3): Juan Agudelo (New England Revolution), Dom Dwyer (Sporting Kansas City), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders FC)
GOALKEEPERS (3): Jose Calderon (CD Marathon, HON); Orlando Mosquera (Tauro FC, PAN); Alex Rodriguez (San Francisco FC, PAN)
DEFENDERS (8): Roberto Chen (Deportivo Arabe Unido, PAN); Eric Davis (FC DAC 1904 DunajskA Streda, SVK); Fidel Escobar (Unattached); Roderick Miller (Atlético Nacional, COL); Michael Amir Murillo (New York Red Bulls, USA); Luis Ovalle (Unattached); Angel Patrick (Deportivo Arabe Unido, PAN); Jan Carlos Vargas (Tauro FC, PAN)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Edgar Yoel Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula, MEX); Miguel Camargo (New York City FC, USA); Armando Cooper (Toronto FC, CAN); Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes, USA); Gabriel Gomez (Atlético Bucaramanga, COL); Leslie Heraldez (Deportivo Arabe Unido, PAN); Josiel Nuñez (CD Plaza Amador, PAN); Valentin Pimentel (CD Plaza Amador, PAN)
FORWARDS (4): Abdiel Arroyo (Danubio FC, URU); Ricardo Clarke (Unattached); Ismael Diaz (FC Porto, POR); Gabriel Torres (FC Lausanne-Sport, SUI)