The journey to the 2018 World Cup in Russia continues for the United States Men’s National Team on Tuesday, where they will travel to Panama in hopes of securing their second victory of the Hexagonal.
Three points is still a must for the Yanks
If the United States can complete this task and leave Panama with three points, then their nightmare 0-2 start to the Hex will be made up and forgotten. Not to mention the fact that the USMNT can potentially climb as high as second place if they win and other results go their way.
Regardless of what happens in the other matches in the Hex, three points for the Americans will give them full control of their World Cup dreams. A draw is still good for the United States, but that result will only give them four points out of four matches, while at the same time turning the Hex into the Wild West.
However, the road to acquiring the three points will be difficult for a few reasons. First, the Yanks will be facing Los Canaleros at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez, which has proven to be a very difficult place to secure a victory for opposing teams.
The Panamanians have played a total of four home World Cup qualifiers matches this cycle. The Central Americans have only lost one of those games in the process. La Marea Rojo last defeat at home was in the fourth round to Costa Rica, where they lost 2-1 on November 17th, 2015.
Since that match, Panama has not conceded a goal at the Estadio Rommel Fernandez. That includes shutting out powerhouse Mexico on November 15th, 2016.
Panama will also be fighting for the victory
The second reason why the US will have a tricky task in earning the full amount of points is because the Panamanians are in dire need of three points themselves.
Los Canaerlos started the Hex with a 1-0 road victory against Honduras on November 11th, 2016. Then they hosted Mexico and left the match with a scoreless draw. Panama started the Hex with a solid four points.
Then La Marea Rojo had a chance to improve their World Cup hopes when they faced Trinidad and Tobago on Friday. The game was on the road but the Panamanians had their best chance to earn their seventh point of the Hex before they faced the Yanks the following week.
However, the Central Americans stumbled and lost to the Soca Warriors 1-0. Now they head back home with still only four points and facing a US squad who just destroyed Honduras 6-0 on Friday. A failure to pick up any points against the United States can see Los Canaleros drop to fourth or lower depending on other results.
Panama still remembers
For the final reason why the Panamanians will want to defeat the United States at home, is to erase the nightmare that took place on October 15th, 2013 in the same stadium. Panama only needed to beat the already qualified US on the last day of the Hex to secure the fourth place of the group.
That would have clinched them a playoff series against New Zealand for their first trip to a World Cup. It seemed like the fairytale ending was going to happen when veteran Panamanian striker Luis Tejada gave the home side a 2-1 lead in the 83rd minute.
Tejada’s goal appeared to have been the go-ahead goal for the Central American nation until Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson both scored in stoppage to give the US a 3-2 victory. With that result, Panama’s 2014 World Cup dreams were crushed.
It has been almost four years since that game and with more than 10-players on this current squad who were a part of that match playing on Tuesday, there will be plenty of motivation to beat the US at home.
The good news for the home side is that the United States is not coming into this important qualifier at its healthiest.
The injuries are starting to become an issue for the Yanks
US head coach Bruce Arena came into this camp having to replace US star players Bobby Wood, Fabian Johnson and DeAndre Yedlin due to injuries. Now after the USMNT’s historical 6-0 home victory against Los Catrachos Arena was forced to make some moves again due to injuries. He sent home four players from the camp: Sebastian Lletget, Jordan Morris, John Brooks and Michael Orozco.
It was no surprise that Lletget was sent home after failing to complete the match against Honduras on Friday, and will now be out 4-6 months after undergoing foot surgery. Brooks was sent back to Germany after his sinus infection caused him to become dizzy during the US last match.
As for Orozco and Morris, Arena sent them back due to pre-existing injuries they had before being called up to the national team. In response of the four players leaving camp, the only midfielder Paul Arriola was called in.
How the US or Panama wins
Regardless of these injuries to the USMNT, they still have enough talent to win in Panama. For US fans, this victory will not be as explosive as the last match, but for Arena earning points is all that matters.
Against Honduras, the US was smart to put consistent pressure at home. Now on the road, whether Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones or Christian Pulisic starts in the midfield they will have to push the tempo and not make careless turnovers.
The Americans being able to distribute the ball around the pitch will create gaps in the Panamanian back line. The veteran US forwards Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore are more than capable of finishing chances.
Hogging the ball will also benefit the USMNT in other ways. They will begin to frustrate the Central Americans by keeping possession, which can result in set pieces for the Yanks and potential cards for the home side. However, this only happens if the US can hold on to the ball.
If the American defense and midfield perform as they did in the closing moments of both halves against Honduras in Panama, then the likes of Armando Cooper, Alberto Quintero, Anibal Godoy or Gabriel Gomez have the ability to start a quick counter. Also, the tested forwards of Panama will not need that many chances to make the US regret a turnover or two.
So again smart passing from the defense and the midfield will lead to a US victory.