Bruce Arena has heard the narrative already. In a group featuring Martinique and Nicaragua, two complete minnows in CONCACAF play, the U.S. Men’s National Team’s Gold Cup opener against Panama has been pegged as the match to watch.
It makes sense. Panama is one of five teams that has joined the USMNT in the Hexagonal phase of World Cup qualifying, and they held Arena’s team to a draw when they collided in Panama earlier this year. Los Canaleros are routinely one of CONCACAF’s toughest opponents, and they’re certainly expected to test the USMNT in Saturday’s match.
Arena knows that, and he knows Panama will provide a big test. But he also knows that the Gold Cup is about much, much more than just Saturday’s match, even if it’s very important for the new-look USMNT to set a positive tone.
“Try to win it. Maybe the second game will be harder. Or the third. We don’t know that,” Arena said, “but our only focus is on the game on Saturday. We’re going to do our very best to get three points. We know Panama quite well and I’m sure they know us. It’s going to be a real battle and hopefully we’re the team that comes out on top.”
Panama has routinely proven to be the USMNT’s rival in Gold Cup play. The two teams have collided nine times in tournament play with the USMNT holding a 5-3-1 record. The most recent clash, though, was a Panama victory as Los Canaleros emerged with third-place in the 2015 tournament.
They’re a familiar opponent, even if the roster includes several new faces. The team is missing some regulars. Veteran forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Perez are not involved. Seattle Sounders star Roman Torres isn’t either. Veteran shotstopper Jaime Penedo is also not on the roster.
Four MLS players are scattered throughout the squad, though, with NYCFC’s Miguel Camargo and Toronto FC’s Amando Cooper joining veteran Anibal Godoy of the San Jose Earthquakes and young New York Red Bulls defender Michael Murillo. A familiar face in former Colorado Rapids forward Gabriel Torres is also involved.
The USMNT also has a slew of new faces that are primarily MLS-based. Several got off to hot starts against Ghana, including newcomers Dom Dwyer and Kelyn Rowe, who made their USMNT debut in the pre-tournament friendly.
“They’re a very familiar opponent. We’ve seen them,” said Graham Zusi. “It feels like we see them every couple of months. They’ll have a few new guys in that weren’t in qualifiers and vice versa. Same with us. They’re a dangerous team. They counter pretty well and their set pieces are dangerous as well. This is a game where we have to be locked in for a full 90 minutes and, if we do that, we’ll get the result we want.”
“It will be a good test for us. Looking back at the Ghana game, that was a very good intro game to lead into this tournament. The guys responded very well and Panama is going to pose a similar task to deal with. Panama is a very strong team and it will be a good test for us in the beginning of the tournament.”
Veteran defender Matt Besler reiterated that Panama is “extremely tough”, especially right out of the gate in tournament play. Games against the USMNT tend to be tough and physical, and the U.S. is expecting more of the same on Saturday in Nashville.
It’s the start of what the USMNT hopes will be something special. With a fresh roster, the U.S. group is hungry for tournament success. That success begins on Saturday with what will certainly be a tough test for a roster filled with younger talent.
“To win this tournament is definitely our end goal, but not looking ahead of Panama is what we’re focused on,” Zusi said. “We’re taking it one game at a time to make sure we get out of the group stage and then, from there, we’ll take it a game at a time until we’re in the final.
“Our goal is to win the tournament,” Besler added. “The first thing we have to focus on is Panama. That’s the only thing that matters right now.”