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USMNT vs. Panama: A Look Ahead

Clint Dempsey

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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?

Share your thoughts below.



  1. Panama will be a tough out and being on the East Coast, I will not be awake to see the entire match.

    That said, I think the nats fully understand what is at stake and don’t want to drop points. 2-1 to the US.

    And one more thing. Since the game against Costa Rica, my respect for Jermaine Jones has gone to another level. Of the German-Americans, he is the one who I think really wants to play for the US. He has sacrificed his body like no one else on the team and Klinsi says he takes practice to a whole other level. Get well soon Jermaine. We need you.

  2. Yea I just watched the lead in on espn and they talked about the potential replacements for JJ & Zusi just like Ives.. I’m surprised nobody’s considering Castillo starting at left mid… I just think EJ is a mistake and Brad is too slow.. Castillo seems to fit the need… (never thought I’d say that) Otherwise I hope it’s time to give Corona his shot

  3. Beasley is not playing “that bad” actually but… Castillo is really not an option at LB? Castillo was playing at a great level at Xolos… he even got the attention from some Brazilian clubs.

  4. No Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu this time around……Hope Dempsey, Altidore, F. Johnson, E. Johnson and Bradley step it up today and we create chances/openings up front against the Panamanians

  5. For free kicks, I imagine that Bradley, Evans, Kjlestan and Davis can all deliver good balls. Dempsey might take a shot closer to goal; Altidore can truly smash the ball and is capable of making a wall flinch, but on most attempts, I think he will be called upon to be a target.

  6. I don’t want Davis to start, but with Zusi out who will take our set pieces? Davis is the only other player on the roster right now I trust to consistently deliver good service on dead balls.

    • Uuummmm, not so sure about that. He’s probably the best crosser, yes (unless you count Stu, who strikes a tremendous cross), but MB strikes an excellent dead ball, as does Sacha. Doesn’t Evans also take spot kicks?

      • I didn’t consider Bradley, I was too busy thinking about Jermaine Jones taking the corners in Honduras and hoping Klinsmann doesn’t experiment like that again.

      • Ha! I didn’t even notice JJ taking corners. That’s weird. I know MB took the corners for Chievo and did very well. I don’t think he takes many for Roma, but that skill shouldn’t go away. I don’t remember JJ ever taking any corners for Schalke.

      • Yup. Kljestan can also hit a deadball pretty well, roughly Davis’ level. Davis is maddeningly hot and cold though, and not particularly fast to play defense on a wing in this kind of an athletic game.

        I’d go with Bradley because you want people who can keep up with someone wide to play Panama. If you go too cute and technical we have had a Gold Cup experience with getting run by at home and finding the countervailing technique to be insufficient to create chances and match goals. Gotta match speed with speed.

      • By that I mean play Bradley central — and give him deadball duty — and use athletes instead of Davis or Kljestan wide.

  7. I agree this is what Klinsmann will go with, but I agree with those that think EJ’s speed and 1v1 ability is wasted on a bunker defense. Part of me is shocked I’m saying this, but I think Davis or Corona should start. Either can engage in the short, unlocking passing game we need to play to create opportunities. And without Davis in there, who on earth takes set pieces? Beasley can do it, but then he’s got to get on his horse to get back if there’s a counter. Bradley is really the only other option, but he’s a good target on corners and set pieces. Let Davis handle these, and bring EJ on in the second half for Jozy.

  8. Fabian isn’t bad but Eddie isn’t exactly the creative playmaker type. We basically are playing a winger and 3 forwards in that formation so where the hell will the creative playmaking come from? Zusi will be missed bad

    • I would start FJ because he’s just a classier, more reliable two way player. EJ has fought his way back to relevance but is still EJ. In these games if you have a sloppy offensive day, an ill advised pass, or a failed defensive assignment, you can cost your team a goal.

      Not unlike why I’d have Goodson out.

  9. It’ll be interesting to see what breaks Panama down more- crosses from the flanks or more possession minded players running at the fullbacks. The Johnsons would seem to be more of the latter, while a Brad Davis and maybe even a Kljestan more of the former.

    Panama’s centerbacks are pillars. Not sure how good they are being run at- but the game with Mexico maybe shows that that’s their most vulnerable.

  10. I still don’t like EJ starting. It’s Seattle so I’m sure Klinsi will reward him with a start. However, I don’t think his pace is going to matter against a bunkered team. I’d much rather see a F.J. and Corona combo, playing quick small passes to Dempsey and Jozy who are both capable of one touch soccer too. That’s how you unlock a team that has parked the bus.

    I’d even prefer Davis in a situation like this. At least during a deadball we’d have a good opportunity to score.

    I’d also let Beasley rest this game for F.J. – unless F.J. is still feeling his hammy from the Germany match. Beasley has been playing a lot recently, covering a ton of ground. I think this would be a good game to sit him and have him rested for the harder game in a few days.

    I’m glad we aren’t playing Jones. With a head injury like his, it’s for the best. No need to harm further damage.

    • I agree, in part. I don’t necessarily mind the idea of EJ starting on the wing, but he is not a 90-minute winger. If (god forbid) we need a goal late, who do we turn to for a spark? Boyd? He’s not ready (IMO). I think you need EJ off the bench to spell Jozy or add a 2nd forward, if needed.

      I’d much prefer to see Corona start. Or, maybe Davis on the left and move FJ out to the right.

      I disagree about Beasley. He hasn’t been flawless, but there has to be some understanding developing between he and Besler. I don’t think you change that up at this point.

      This will be interesting.

    • this is all accurate.

      it is not going to happen but it should (the corona/fab unlock). Also – It may not matter either way. looking forward to the match in any case. but yes, +1 this.

    • we’ve seen the opposite in recent games-either he falls over on his own with a breakaway goal-scoring chances or he boots a cross into the defense… he is an absolutely terrible wing option and is ill-suited for that role based on…his play in that position…

      Ives keeps hanging his hat on that magical game vs Antigua and Barbuda, literally a third-division team, where Johnson pushed into the box as much more of a forward, when the U.S. needed a goal, not his play as a wing breaking down defenses, helping the fullback on the defensive end and sending it picture-perfect crosses to actual forwards (which my limited soccer knowledge would tell me are the primary wing responsibilities)…back then taking a gamble against a 3rd division side for a goal by leaving the wing exposed for a counter-attack was judged to be worthy of a risk, BUT if EJ is actually asked to play the position on the field, of a winger, he lacks the skills and acumen-the better (relatively speaking) options are Castillo, Corona, Davis, Beasley and Johnson, maybe even Dempsey

      either play him as a forward-the receiver of crosses, or sub him in for Altidore toward the end, don’t play him as a wing

    • As a Sounders fan, I have questions about that too.

      I think with this formation you will be looking for EJ to cut inside and take it to goal, or lay off to Beasley for a cross into the box. EJ is very good with the head, so when the ball is on the right, I’d expect him to crash the far post as another target in the box. (isn’t that how he scored his 2nd goal against A&B? – legitimate question) It will be interesting to see no doubt.

      Work this afternoon is going to be painfully slow.

    • I don’t think he can on a consistent basis, but he did play a couple good balls in against Belgium- one drawing the penalty kick. I, however, am not a big fan of him playing a wide midfield role, he needs to be Jozy’s sub late.

      • Yeah, he had a cross that was influential in one goal re Belgium. I wouldn’t bet a ton of money on quality but it’s more likely he’d be helpful than some others like Ashe, who hits like a handful of decent crosses a season. EJ is maddeningly inconsistent and often sloppy, but he can execute on occasion, and some can’t.

      • I am not an EJ fan, I think he is inconsistent. I just like the speed and pace he brings in as a sub.

      • I’d like Jozy Altidore to be Terrence Boyd’s sub late.

        (Oh god! I feel the “hater” comments about to rain down on me! I’m scared!)

      • Don’t think it’s crazy to not be a fan of Altidore. But your timing for wanting to bench him for Boyd is weird. JAs coming off 2 straight scoring games. Boyds coming off two straight imo terrible performances. At best Boyds performances were lackluster.

      • Also it seems like a vast percentage of ur posts r about how u don’t like Altidores game. Maybe it just seems that way but that’s my perception. Cheers.

      • Well, why do you want that? Think Boyd is better? Think Jozy will be tired from last game? if the former, yeah, I think you must be a little daft. If the latter, okay… Less daft, still a handful of marbles loose.

  11. I’m saying 3-1 in front of a super hyphy Seattle crowd. The energy around this one just seems too amazing for anything less.

    • I would have called it a 4-4-2 myself. To my admittedly limited knowledge in 4-2-2-2’s the middle 2 is a set of attacking midfielders which are stationed more centrally instead of being a set of 2 wingers or outside mids.

    • I think so…that is close to how they lined up against Mexico. But really, these formations are constantly changing and can be deceiving. A 4-4-2 can turn into a 4-4-1-1 or a 4-2-2-2 very easily.

      What they did against Mexico looked somewhat disorganized. They held the ball around midfield for stretches but did not have anyone to be a pivot to go forward. In these instances, they did have width and tried to move the ball down the flanks but a well organized team with purpose is not what they were.

  12. Is Perez definitely out? I’ve heard two pundits voice skepticism that this is all a big ruse and that he’ll magically get well and suit up.

      • Basically an undefined GI ailment. The point this guy made was that no one declares an important player out with a GI ailment 3 days before an important qualifier. It kind of makes sense. If Deuce had diarrhea on Saturday, would he be declared out or would JK wait and see how he felt on game night?

      • All I was saying was that gastroenteritus is a common medical condition whose most common symptom is diarrhea. I did not say anything about whether or not he should play. Chill.

      • I think you misread or misunderstood what I wrote. Not critiquing your comment, just taking off on it.

      • Ahh my apologies, I should have reread it.

        And yes you are completely right, I have contracted gastroentritus in the past and it lasted all of about 48 hours each time, definitely something they could wait until a few hours prior to the game to make a decision on.

      • I have had that before… there’s a good chance he had a fever and is generally weak. It takes a lot out of you quite literally. Maybe he could play… but he wouldn’t be anywhere near 100%

        I was weak for about 5 days and have bouts of dizziness(because I didn’t eat for almost 2 days) even after I didn’t have to spent the whole day in the bathroom.
        Totally reasonable to be out.

      • Thanks guys. I thought it was weird. These are 2 seemingly reliable pundits. Grain of salt from now on.

      • As I understand it, the only rules are that you file a non-binding provisional roster of 50 players 30 days before your first qualifying matches, which can be changed; and then you can name up to 23 on game day that may dress and play.

        I know there are rules about player release, including injury, and such but I think those are more pointed to club-country disputes. Unlike say NFL — which does it for reasons of full disclosure intended to guard against uneven, inside information for gambling purposes — the 23 man gameday roster obviates the need for an injured list, and FIFA presumably leaves it up to released players to play hurt.

        What this means for Perez is that if he’s recovered or it was all a hoax, he could theoretically show up since he’s surely on their provo list and could be put on the 23 on matchday. But as a practical matter the reports could be true in which case if he’s still ill why bother.

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