ORLANDO, Fla. – Almost exactly four years ago, Panama stood on the threshold of an unprecedented breakthrough.
Hosting an already-qualified US national team at Estadio Rommel Fernandez in the final game of the CONCACAF Hexagonal round of 2014 World Cup qualifying, Los Canaleros needed a win and a Mexico loss to edge El Tri for fourth place and advance to an intercontinental playoff vs. New Zealand.
And when former Real Salt Lake striker Luis Tejada beat Brad Guzan to run the score to 2-1 Panama in the 83rd minute, they were mere minutes away from making that achievement a reality, taking a giant step closer to the first World Cup appearance in their nation’s history.
Then “San Zusi” took flight.
That would be Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi, who thumped home an injury-time header – followed quickly by a back-breaking strike from range from Aron Johannsson – to snatch victory out of Panama’s hands and hand Mexico that playoff place, which they gratefully seized upon to jet to Brazil 2014. Memorably, Zusi became a Mexican folk hero in the process, showered with gifts by a grateful El Tri fanbase.
Powered by the greatest generation of talent in their history, the Canaleros had moved within sight of the promised land, only to have it taken away from them in the most painful fashion possible. So surely that heartbreak is fueling a burning fire for revenge against the USMNT at Orlando City Stadium on Friday (7 pm ET; ESPN2, Univision, UDN), right?
Well, yes and no.
“Honestly, you can say revenge, but we’re calm,” striker Abdiel Arroyo told reporters at Wednesday afternoon’s training session in Four Corners, some 45 minutes southwest of Orlando. “We know it isn’t going to be easy. We know the United States is a threat in the region. We just have to be hopeful, and we’ll conquer the game.
“It’s my first qualifying cycle, but we know that four years ago we suffered that loss. But we want to make our nation proud, so our families and friends can know we gave everything for this moment – which is securing a spot in the World Cup.”
Arroyo, 23, wasn’t yet in the senior squad back in 2013. But his elder teammates made the same point. That tragic outcome stung badly – those involved later confessed that the pain lingered for months for both them and their families, and some even contemplated retirement – but it’s not clouding their approach to Friday’s clash.
They can’t afford to allow that. The stakes are too high.
Panama are once again edging close to qualification, this time for Russia 2018. And this time they enter the home stretch a nose in front of the USMNT, in possession of third place (CONCACAF’s final automatic World Cup berth) ahead of Friday’s match and their Hex closer at home to Costa Rica.
With Honduras, the other remaining contenders, facing second-place Costa Rica and already-qualified Mexico this week, a win or draw in Orlando would be a massive step towards a top-four finish for Panama.
“We’re don’t lack concentration, and there’s a lot of harmony among us. A great hope to make history,” said captain and former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez. “We feed off good energy from each other – this is a big opportunity to achieve.”
Gomez is a leading member of the talented crop that pushed Panama to a higher level over the past decade, elevating the program from CONCACAF also-rans to fearsome giant-killers. He’s one of many Canaleros from that 2013 chapter who remain on the current squad, along with Tejada, Felipe Baloy, the Seattle Sounders' Roman Torres, former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, ex-Colorado Rapids striker Gabriel Torres, San Jose midfielder Anibal Godoy and ex-Quake Alberto Quintero and FC Dallas and Vancouver Whitecaps alum Blas Perez.
Promising new prospects like Arroyo are coming through as the Central American nation evolves from a baseball-centric sports culture to one that reveres the beautiful game. Yet the window is closing for those pioneers, several of whom are expected to call time on their international careers whenever this current campaign reaches its end.
Will history repeat itself on Friday? Or can Panama pen a new chapter?
“I don’t think for our players, it means anything to them at this point,” said USMNT coach Bruce Arena when asked about the 2013 game on Thursday. “I certainly would think it does for our opponent tomorrow. I thought it was a strange event, those last couple of minutes, on how it impacted everything in the standings in the Hex.
“Panama has had a very good generation of players,” he added. “Their national team program has grown … I can go back even earlier as a national team coach and been impressed with their growth of their national team program.”
It’s certainly possible that the chips will fall in such a way that both the US and Panama find their way to the big event in Russia next summer. For now, however, it’s a zero-sum game: One side’s dream is the other’s nightmare.
It may be a daunting prospect for the players and coaches. But for the rest of us, it makes this match the region’s most compelling encounter of the year.
“Right now we feel good, knowing a tough challenge on Friday is just another step to get to the World Cup,” said Arroyo. “For a footballer, this is a dream, to qualify to the World Cup for the first time. Hopefully Friday we walk away with everything.”