ExtraTime Radio Podcast
LISTEN: Friday against Panama is a must-win game. Don't let anyone tell you any different. The guys preview the US national team's second-to-last World Cup qualifier from top to bottom, then invite Panamanian journalist David Sakata (18:49) on to re-live the national nightmare ushered in by San Zusi's goal in 2013. Stick around for MLS banter and the mailbag. Subscribe now and "Like" our Facebook page so you never miss a show! Download this episode!
It’s been nearly four years, and yet the memories remain sharp and the details vivid. You don’t forget days like Oct. 15, 2013, a date that elicits a shrug from most American soccer fans but will forever live on in the collective psyche of Panamanians as a national nightmare.
On that night, at a rain-swept Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City, I was one of two US-based journalists – the other was ESPN’s Roger Bennett – to make the trip for what was a mostly meaningless game for the visitors. Jurgen Klinsmann’s team had already wrapped up first place in the Hexagonal ahead of the final match of the 2014 World Cup Qualifying cycle.
Thanks to Mexico’s Hex faceplant, Panama still had a path to Brazil, even if the locals were doubtful that Costa Rica would knock off El Tri in San Jose while Los Canaleros defeated the Americans for only the second time in their history. Even then, the reward would be qualification for a playoff series against New Zealand. It could happen, but most people I talked to in the days before the game figured it wouldn’t. “Who knows? Maybe,” they said.
Four years later, Americans remember that match for Graham Zusi’s stoppage-time header, an improbable goal that capped a high-water Hexagonal campaign and earned him millions of grateful Mexican admirers and the moniker San Zusi while reinforcing the sacred mythology of the American never-say-die mentality. “See, we never stop playing and neither should you,” came the refrain.
Meanwhile, Zusi’s header is remembered far differently in Panama. It was the death blow that snatched away their World Cup dreams, decades in the making, for no apparent reason. It’s the goal that, in the seconds it took Brad Davis to cross and Zusi to hover and nod the ball past Jaime Penedo, turned a national fiesta into a funeral. “Why? Why help your archrivals at our expense?” said the body language of the players, the fans, everyone in the stadium who didn't arrive on the US bus.
In the moment, sitting there flabbergasted as a once raucous environment fell silent, I understood their dismay, if not the reckless tactics that left Panama open and vulnerable. In a little more than two hours, the entire country’s emotions had been through the wringer, as fans, coaches and players followed the match in San Jose by radio.
- 6:49 pm ET – OUT – Gabriel Torres curls the ball past Brad Guzan to give Panama an early lead
- 6:55 pm ET – IN – Bryan Ruiz’s goal in San Jose inspires beer showers at Rommel Fernandez
- 6:59 pm ET – OUT – Oribe Peralta ties the score for Mexico, a draw ensuring a 4th-place finish
- 7:53 pm ET – IN – Alvaro Saborio retakes the lead for Costa Rica, restarting the party
- 7:54 pm ET – OUT – Michael Orozco’s scrappy header ends the festivities as quickly as they started
- 8:13 pm ET – IN – Substitute Luis Tejada pokes the ball past Brad Guzan and pandemonium follows
- 8:32 pm ET – OUT – Zusi rises above the defense two minutes into stoppage time, the ultimate gut punch
- 8:33 pm ET – OUT – Aron Johannsson’s shot from distance skids past Penedo, the dream officially dead
In, out, in, out, in, out. It was hard to blame the Panama players who, according to their American counterparts, had asked their opponents to take it easy in the final 10 minutes. After all, everybody was getting what they wanted. Why spoil the party for a couple meaningless points? The US players, who wanted to book their own tickets to Brazil, felt differently. Both sides had a point.
Which brings us to Friday’s match where, once again, World Cup fates are on the line.
This time, Panama doesn’t need any help. A win against the US – they’ve drawn all four meetings since Oct. 2013 1-1, including a penalty kick triumph in the 2015 Gold Cup third-place game – and they’re going to Russia, a first-ever World Cup appearance locked up. For the US, guaranteed qualification is 180 minutes away, as even a victory in Orlando requires other results to go their way should they then fail to win at Trinidad and Tobago on the final match day. A playoff against Australia or Syria remains in play for both.
The Panamanians know what’s at stake. They know a feeling of loss that none of the Americans who'll take the field on Friday can truly fathom. They know what it's like to claw your way up the mountaintop only to be shoved off the summit and plummet back down to earth. They’ll play to the final whistle this time, and they believe, perhaps more than ever before, that the US is there for the taking.
They might be right. The margins are tighter in CONCACAF than ever before. The Americans, after a qualifying campaign punctuated by close calls and unaccustomed results, find themselves on the brink of what has previously been the unthinkable, a national nightmare of our own.
This time, barring back-to-back wins, it'll be the US that need help to make their dreams come true.
We'll be watching the action on Saturday in San Jose, where a Costa Rica win would keep Honduras from gaining ground. In case you forgot, Jonathan Bornstein spoiled the Ticos' World Cup party with a late header at RFK Stadium back in 2009. In case you were wondering, Costa Ricans haven't forgotten having the rug pulled out from under them.
Depending on the results on Friday, the US may need Costa Rica and Mexico to pick up road results in Panama and Honduras with their own World Cup berths safe and secure. Who expects them to go out of their way to help the US with their place in Russia in the bag? Not I. And, I expect, neither does Bruce Arena.
Like Panama, I hold tightly to the lessons of Oct. 15, 2013: If you're looking for help in CONCACAF, the only place you'll find it is within.