DATE: Friday, Oct. 6
TIME: 4:30 p.m. PT
LOCATION: Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Fla.
TV INFO: ESPN2
Four years ago, the U.S. national team drove a dagger into Panama's hopes of qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Now, Los Canaleros will be looking for payback — or at least to make the Yanks' precarious position even more so.
Panama sit third and the U.S. are just one point back going into Friday's penultimate CONCACAF qualifier, with Bruce Arena's side holding an eight-goal edge over Honduras (also on nine points) in the tiebreaker. Still, the U.S. would love to leapfrog the visitors into third place, hang on to that final automatic berth in their Hex finale at Trinidad and Tobago on Oct. 10 and avoid a home-and-home playoff against the bubble team from Asia.
They'll have to do a better job of defending the home turf than they did last time, though. Last month, they took a 2-0 loss against Costa Rica and barely salvaged the round with a late away draw to Honduras. Panama would love nothing more than to avenge their "San Zusi" loss of 2013 at Orlando City Stadium — and in doing so, near the end of their journey from the low middle of the CONCACAF pack to a World Cup-quality side.
Still, the Yanks have managed to get the job done in their last seven qualifying tournaments — and they're not ready to sit out the World Cup for the first time since 1986.
UNITED STATES OUTLOOK
Coach Bruce Arena is putting the team on MLS' back for this one, with 18 of the 26 players currently based in the league (and six more having experience here). At the same time, Borussia Dortmund's Christian Pulisic and Hamburg's Bobby Wood will likely bring a Bundesliga flavor to the attack as the U.S. press for three precious points — though Fabian Johnson won't be joining them with overlapping runs from the fullback spot, having been left off the roster for a lack of fitness.
The addition of veteran Sporting Kansas City playmaker Benny Feilhaber provides valuable international experience in big names — and if he gets a start, Feilhaber could help keep some of the pressure off Pulisic by splitting up the creative duties.
Equally important, however, will be keeping Panama out of the goal and avoiding a repeat of that Sept. 1 match against Costa Rica, where the visitors' goals energized a huge away support section and took the air out of American fans' lungs. The center back pairing will be crucial — and it will be interesting to see if Arena gives Geoff Cameron another run-out after he and Tim Ream looked disjointed together against the Ticos.
Even a draw would be a positive result for Los Canaleros, given their position on the table — and even a play-in game would be better than their recent showings in qualifying. Whatever his strategy, manager Hernan Dario Gomez is taking an "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to his roster-building.
Gomez has largely stuck with the players who got Panama into this position, including a six-man MLS contingent that includes a couple of players who know what it's like to succeed in recent seasons: Román Torres of 2016 MLS Cup champions Seattle and Armando Cooper of the 2017 Supporters' Shield/Canadian Championship domestic double winners Toronto FC.
The defensive corps also includes Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar of the New York Red Bulls and Houston's Adolfo Machado, meaning Panama will know their MLS-based counterparts well — and, with this being the third match of the year between the two sides, counting this summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup, there should be few surprises anywhere on the pitch for or from the visitors.
The past is firmly on the United States' side, with a 12-1-5 record in the series — but in this decade, Panama have made big strides. The 2015 Gold Cup third-place match went down as a draw in the ledger, for example, but it was Los Canaleros who were left celebrating after the penalty stage.
And four years before that, they knocked off the U.S. in the group stage — so they do know what it's like to win on U.S. soil in a big environment.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
USA — Clint Dempsey
Deuce might be a bit of a lion in winter these days, but — whether in a starter or supersub role, he's always been one to come up big in international matches — especially against CONCACAF opponents. If there's one person to bet on bagging a clutch winner to move the Yanks closer to Russia 2018, it's the big Texan.
Panama — Gabriel Torres
No surprise here; it's been a big summer and early fall for the former Colorado Rapids man in a Panama kit. He had a couple of goals in the Gold Cup this summer and one more in the September Hex round — and if the back line give him any space to operate, he could very well add to that total.
Goalkeepers (3): Brad Guzan (Atlanta), Tim Howard (Colorado), Nick Rimando (Salt Lake)
Defenders (9): DaMarcus Beasley (Houston), Matt Besler (Kansas City), Geoff Cameron (Stoke, England), Omar Gonzalez (Pachuca, Mexico), Michael Orozco (Tijuana, Mexico), Tim Ream (Fulham, England), Jorge Villafana (Santos Laguna, Mexico), DeAndre Yedlin (Newcastle, England), Graham Zusi (Kansas City)
Midfielders (9): Kellyn Acosta (Dallas), Juan Agudelo (New England), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Alejandro Bedoya (Philadelphia), Michael Bradley (Toronto), Benny Feilhaber (Kansas City), Dax McCarty (Chicago Fire), Darlington Nagbe (Portland), Christian Pulisic (Borussia Dortmund, Germany)
Forwards (4): Jozy Altidore (Toronto), Clint Dempsey (Seattle), Chris Wondolowski (San Jose), Bobby Wood (Hamburg, Germany)
Goalkeepers (2): José Calderón (Marathón/HON), Jaime Penedo (Dynamo Bucharest/ROM)
Defenders (8): Felipe Baloy (Municipal/GUA), Érick Davis (Dunajská Streda/SVK), Fidel Escobar(New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (Deportes Tolima/COL), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders FC), Jan Carlos Vargas (Tauro)
Midfielders (7): Édgar Bárcenas (Tapachula/MEX), Ricardo Buitrago (Juan Aurich/PER), Armando Cooper (Toronto FC), Aníbal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gòmez (Atlético Bucaramanga/COL), José González (Árabe Unido), Alberto Quintero (Universitario/PER)
Forwards (5): Abdiel Arroyo (Danubio/URU), Roberto Nurse (Zacatecas), Blas Pérez (Municipal/GUA), Luis Tejada (Universitario/PER), Gabriel Torres (Lausanna-Sport/SUI)