Bruce Arena at USMNT training, July 2017
ISI Photos

Arena expects "physical," "dangerous" Panama in US' Gold Cup start

NASHVILLE — The last time the US men’s national team faced frequent CONCACAF foe Panama came just this past March, in World Cup Qualifying. But on Friday, the Yanks’ first day training in the boiling, cavernous expanse of Nissan Stadium, head coach Bruce Arena predicted this Saturday’s meeting, in the Gold Cup, would yield few similarities.  

“I think that game was all about the referee, how they decided to let things go,” said Arena, famous for never mincing words. “The game was very physical, a very unusual game to have in World Cup Qualifying. There wasn’t a whole lot pf positive play there. Every attack was stopped with a foul, and things got a little out of hand. My guess is that in the Gold Cup, the referees will monitor the game a little closer.”

Refereeing aside, the head coach expects a match on Saturday, in the US’ kick-off to their Gold Cup campaign, that will force his men onto their toes for the full 90-plus (4:30 pm ET, FOX, Univision, TSN, UDN). After all, the last three meetings between the countries, since the 2015 Gold Cup, have all resulted in 1-1 draws.

It'll somewhat help that both Arena and most of the US squad will recognize three MLSers with Los Canaleros: the San Jose Earthquakes’ Anibal Godoy, the New York Red Bulls’ Michael Amir Murillo, New York City FC’s Miguel Camargo, and Toronto FC’s Armando Cooper.

Arena offered a few words of praise for a couple of them: Godoy is a “very good player”; Murillo, though young in his MLS career, is also a “good player.” But both of them form part of a national team system, Arena says, that’s risen dramatically in potential danger for opponents.

“We saw enough of them in March to understand them, and have seen them throughout the years,” he said. “They produce very good players. Football in Panama has improved greatly over the last five or six years.”

Here’s what Arena thinks – and others in the US squad echoed in Friday’s pre-training mixed zone – the Yanks can expect from their opponents: an aggressive, physical team, and tons of nonstop pressure.

“They’re a very physical team, a lot of pressure on the ball,” Arena said. “They’re very well-schooled in attacking and re-starts, and they’re dangerous in that part of the game.”

That might mean another match that produces scant goals. But between the skill of a truly gelling US squad – and some punishing climate – things could well open up. “Regardless,” Arena said, “we’re prepared to play in any game.”

In any event, he can now specifically prepare, at least, for the starting XI on the day. Panama's head coach, Hernan Dario Gomez, or "El Bolillo," gamely gave it away at his own press appearances.