Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
SEATTLE- It might not feel like much of a rivalry to U.S. fans, but USA-Panama has certainly become one of the more consistently difficult match-ups in the region for both teams. They have faced each other on repeated occasions (in the knockout rounds of the past four CONCACAF Gold Cups) and on every occasion the sides have battled hard in close matches that either team could have taken.
Truth be told, you could argue that Panama’s current crop of stars, featuring Blas Perez, Felipe Baloy, Roman Torres, Gabriel Gomez and Jaime Penedo, have been a sort of Golden Generation for the ‘Canaleros’, only they don’t have the silverware to show for their quality because of the U.S. consistently standing in the way.
Even before this current generation, Panama has felt the tinge of disappointment from key losses to the U.S. None greater than their penalty shootout loss to the U.S. in the 2005 CONCACAF Gold Cup Final (a final clinched for the U.S. by the penalty kick of a young Brad Davis).
Since that final, the U.S. has eliminated Panama from three straight Gold Cups and the defeats have all been close. I can recall interviewing Blas Perez after Panama’s 2-1 loss to the U.S. in the 2007 quarterfinals, and all Perez could do was shake his head and insist that one day Panama would get revenge and knock off the Americans. It stood to reason that they just might given the nucleus of talent they had at the time (which includes many of the same names listed above).
Panama eventually scored that first win vs. the U.S., in the group stages of the 2011 Gold Cup, but once again the U.S. responded by eliminating Panama in the Gold Cup semifinals, on a late goal yet again.
Tonight, the U.S. team stands poised to once again spoil the party for a Panama side enjoying a reasonably impressive run in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying. The Americans enter the match brimming with the confidence that comes from recording seven points in their first four HEX matches despite the fact they have played three of their first four on the road.
Boosting the U.S. team’s chances even further, aside from the expected packed crowd at CenturyLink Field, is the absence of Panamanian striker Blas Perez, easily Panama’s most dangerous and consistent scoring threat (he is missing the match due to an illness and didn’t travel).
Without Perez, Panama figures to play a defensive-minded match, with the hope being that the Canaleros can escape the Pacific Northwest with a point.
Here is a closer look at the USMNT-Panama match-up
Panama currently sit fourth in the HEX table, and only some late defensive lapses in their HEX-opening draw vs. Costa Rica are keeping them from topping the group. They have stifled Mexico, outplayed Honduras, and took it to Costa Rica before squandering a two-goal lead in the second half at home.
Panama is definitely capable of attacking in waves, but the absence of Perez severely stunts their attacking prowess, and is likely to force them to reconsider their approach.
You need only look back to Panama’s match in Mexico last Friday, when they bunkered in against ‘El Tri’ and came away with a point in a match they succeeded in turning ugly.
We are very likely to see more of that on Tuesday, with the onus being on the U.S. to break down Panama’s defensive shell. That will be easier said than done because of a defensive wall of granite consisting of centerbacks Baloy and Torres, and defensive midfielder Gomez, who is capable of breaking up attacks as well as sparking them with sharp long passes.
Just how defensive will Panama go? Head coach Julio Dely Valdes has some options to consider. He can go with a two defensive-midfielder approach and sit one of his attack-minded midfielders, which would allow him to build a block of six to stifle the U.S. offense.
So what might the teams look when they face off on the field? Here is our projection:
Panama could go with Amilcar Henriquez or Armando Cooper in place of Anibal Godoy in order to give their attack more punch, and Dely Valdes could start one of them in place of Marcos Sanchez, who was let go by D.C. United after a largely ineffective stint with that club.
The key for the U.S. will be working the flanks. If Gomez and Godoy sit deep and force everything wide, then Eddie Johnson and Fabian Johnson (or Brad Davis or Joe Corona) will need to be extremely sharp with their service. Both Johnsons can take defenders on, and they will both look to stretch Panama’s defense with runs at the fullbacks. Johnson has the advantage of being able to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, while Johnson will be looking to deliver some crosses from the right. It should also be noted that the Johnsons can play either side, so interchanging throughout the match is something we will likely see (assuming Jurgen Klinsmann starts them on the flanks).
Arguably the best match-up of the night should feature Felipe Baloy against Jozy Altidore. The clash of physical specimens should be fun to watch, and it will be up to Altidore to try and draw out Panama’s best defender, and use his speed to create space for the other U.S. attackers. It won’t be an easy night for Altidore, but given the wave of confidence he is riding after scoring in two straight matches, it is safe to say he will be up for the challenge.
The U.S. fullbacks also need to contribute to the attack tonight, especially if Panama comes out as defensive-minded as expected. Dely Valdez just might go with more attack-minded options like Cooper and Amilcar Henriquez in place of the out-of-form Sanchez and defensive-minded Luis Henriquez, but that is where Beasley and Evans could have a field day getting forward.
Panama could find some success if they deploy either Cooper or Amilcar Henriquez on the left to match them up with Evans, who still struggles with one-on-one defending against quicker wingers.
Luis Tejada will be the focal point of whatever Panama attack there is, but without Perez to draw attention away and deliver passes, Tejada will struggle to impose himself against Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez. One of the many areas Perez will be missed will be in midfield, where he is known to drop into and help circulate passing and draw in defenders. Without that threat (and Rolando Blackburn is nowhere close to as dangerous), Panama will struggle to break down the U.S. defense.
The best chance for Panama will be much as it was for Jamaica: set pieces. Baloy, Torres and Gomez can all threaten on set pieces and it will be up to Gonzalez and Tim Howard to do well to clean up threats in the penalty area.
Overall, the U.S. should have the edge in possession and the match should ultimately consist of the U.S. working the wings, trying to find cracks in Panama’s attack. It might be a bit presumptuous to think Panama will just purely pack in numbers and trot out a very defensive-minded lineup, but the absence of Perez severely limits the team’s options, and playing for a point, much as they did in Mexico last week, isn’t the worst approach.
The Americans will need to be sharp, and remember the lessons of the previous round of World Cup qualifying, where they came up against bunkering teams and found ways to break them down. Their match-ups against Antigua & Barbuda should provide some perfect lessons to look back on, which means we might just see Eddie Johnson reprise his role of left wing hero yet again. Only this time in front of his home Seattle Sounders fans.
Look for the U.S. to prevail, posting a 2-0 victory, with goals from Eddie Johnson and Michael Bradley.
What do you think of the match-up? See Panama having a chance of knocking off the U.S. without Perez? What match-up are you most looking forward to?
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