And in looking ahead to the match-up, which kicks off the Yanks’ campaign on Saturday at Nissan Stadium (4:30 pm ET | FOX and Univision), nobody’s coming in hot or headstrong.
“Panama’s extremely a tough opponent, especially right out of the gate,” said defender Matt Besler, of Sporting Kansas City, on Thursday afternoon, after the US’ last training session at Nashville’s Lipscomb University. “We seem to have played them a lot in recent years, and every single game’s been different, and they’ve all been very tough, physical battles.”
For some at US camp, a tough opponent to start is a little like ripping off a bandage, with a positive result steamrolling into some momentum in a tournament that could be winnable. But, yes, even a draw will definitely require laser focus.
“They’re a very familiar opponent… It feels like we see them every couple months,” said defender Graham Zusi, also of Sporting Kansas City. “They’re a dangerous team. They play the counter pretty well, and their set pieces are very dangerous as well. This is a game we’re gonna have to be locked in for a full 90 minutes.”
Of course, the US haven’t actually met up with Panama every couple of months. But they have met them in both this cycle of World Cup qualifying, as well as the last edition of the Gold Cup, and will meet them again in qualifying in October. None of these match-ups over the last two years have proved easy; both of them in the 2015 Gold Cup, both in the group stage and the third-place playoff, yielded a 1-1 draw. The same scoreline followed this past March in World Cup qualifying.
Now, though, the US come into this test in Nashville with a different coach, in Arena, and a fresher, hungry squad comprised mainly of MLS players. Many of them will potentially recognize some of Los Canaleros from league play, particularly standouts like Anibal Godoy, of the San Jose Earthquakes, and Armando Cooper, of Toronto FC.
Zusi, however, quickly pointed out that focusing on any one threat from among the Panamanians would be to miss the overall danger. “We’ve just started looking at some of the film of Panama now,” he said. “As a team, they’re going to be dangerous. If we look to individuals too much, I think the other guys will hurt us.”
Midfielder Paul Arriola, of Liga MX club Tijuana, also echoed the Yanks’ need to prepare for nearly any kind of strategy from their opponents. “Panama obviously is very diverse,” the 22-year-old said of their favored M.O. “They like to attack with numbers. They like to throw their outside backs forward, and I think for us it’s important to be not just defensive, but also not be scared to open up the game and trust our players.”
Luckily head coach Bruce Arena expressed just that kind of trust after a training session that markedly ramped up in tactics. “Most of these guys have a hunger,” he said. “The reason they’re here is basically they’re hungry players, they’re motivated players.”