KANSAS CITY, Kansas – While many fans curse that fateful night in Couva, Trinidad in 2017, the US men’s national team’s opponents on Wednesday praise it as a landmark moment in their country’s soccer history. And on Wednesday, Panama and the USMNT face off yet again in competitive play (9 pm ET | FS1, UniMas, UDN).
Panama’s rise to the status of a top contender in Concacaf started prior to the 2014 World Cup, as they finished as runners-up in the 2013 Gold Cup only to be painfully denied qualification for Brazil when Graham Zusi’s header famously led to Mexico’s back-door entry to the World Cup at the expense of the Panamanians.
In the next cycle, however, a Panama squad filled with players who made a name for themselves in MLS got their revenge by clinching a spot at Russia 2018 ahead of the USMNT. Current US head coach Gregg Berhalter has taken note of the MLS presence within Panama’s roster.
“Major League Soccer has done a great job of developing some of the other nations in our region,” Berhalter said in Tuesday night’s press conference. “[They’ve] taken a lot of the under-developed markets, or some that weren’t tapped in by Europe, and taken the players to MLS and given them the platform to succeed and they’ve done a great job.”
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Five MLSers made the initial Gold Cup roster for Los Canaleros (though the San Jose Earthquakes’ Anibal Godoy was subsequently dropped due to an injury). Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes praised the league’s influence not only on the national team, but in the overall growth of soccer in Panama as well.
“Always when a football player comes out of Panama,” Dely Valdes said through a translator, “That’s important because that type of football is better than the football in Panama. From that standpoint, knowing that we have a lot of players in MLS, it has obviously helped. MLS has a high level, and it’s growing, and that’s helping the national team grow, especially in terms of the presentation we give in tournaments.”
Dely Valdes’ twin brother, Jorge, played with the Colorado Rapids from 1999-2000, scoring 17 goals.
Panama’s improved competitiveness in the Gold Cup, and eventually in qualifying for the World Cup, is a sign of the overall effect that MLS has had on player development throughout the region, according to Berhalter.
“Then there’s Costa Ricans who have flourished in our league, Hondurans who have done a great job in our league. Major League Soccer has given these players an excellent platform to show themselves and there is definitely quality developing in our region and it’s nice to see it developing in Major League Soccer.”