The United States and Panama meet tonight in Kansas City in the final group stage games for both sides in the 2015 Gold Cup. The US has sealed first place in Group A and will be more focused on improving on what have been two straight poor performances. Panama, meanwhile, will know exactly what they need to do to get into 2nd place and be sure of a spot in the quarterfinals due to the fact that Haiti and Honduras will be the opening match of this doubleheader. There is a scenario in which Panama could lose this one and still finish second, but most likely they will be looking at tonight's game as a must-not-lose.
It's also worth noting the conditions that this game will be played in. Sporting Park's weather may be most closely associated with the 2013 MLS Cup final - played on a viciously cold December night - but today is pretty much the opposite:
The Gold Cup games in Kansas City tonight will be brutal for players and fans. pic.twitter.com/GaneN42h3z— Phillip Quinn (@PhilMQuinn) July 13, 2015
Key player: Timothy Chandler
We've seen two totally different USMNT back fours in this tournament, and neither has looked good. However, the gap between the 7th best performance of those 8 players and 8th best is substantial, and it's because Chandler was an utter disaster against Honduras. US fans have had to tolerate a lot with Chandler: An extended courtship, an outright avoidance of being cap-tied after several friendlies, and the current situation where he is too often a liability.
While it's usually not a good idea to ever gauge where Jurgen Klinsmann is in terms of evaluating a specific player, it seems to me that Chandler's status as a USMNT player needs to be called into question. His showing against Honduras was not much different than I'd expect to see out of a random back-up MLS right back, having attended the game in street clothes, being dragged out of the stands and told he's playing 20 minutes before kickoff.
Panama will be missing multiple starters due to suspension and/or injury, and on top of that they don't have anyone even close to as good as Andy Najar who can attack Chandler down the US right. This is a fairly low bar for Chandler to clear, and he needs to prove he's up to the more difficult job in the knockout round - not to mention qualifying, which starts sooner than you think - by clearing it with ease. In other words, it's time to see the Bundesliga-quality fullback we're supposed to get when Chandler gets called in.
Key question: Will the US break Panamanian hearts again?
Obviously there's a big difference between knocking Los Canaleros out of the Gold Cup and denying them a once-per-generation shot at a spot in the World Cup. However, I'd argue that Panamanian soccer still needs every big game it can get. As a team, these tests will take them far. As individuals, this is the shop window for a squad of players mostly made up of guys playing domestically or elsewhere in Central America or Mexico's 2nd division. As a soccer-playing nation, Panama needs to come through in games like this more often to continue to grow.
The USMNT will have a lot less skin in this game than Panama. They already know they'll finish atop the group, and they already know where their next game is (Baltimore). Losing this one changes nothing tangible; all it would do is increase the pressure after the first two matches more or less threw away all the good will built up by beating the Netherlands and Germany. One strength of this team has been the professionalism to do their best and dig deep even when real consequences aren't present; it was in that kind of scenario that Graham Zusi and Aron Johansson dumped Panama out of World Cup qualifying in 2013. That's the kind of thing this team needs to do again to prove that the first two games were just blips.
Match date/time: Monday 7/13, 9:30pm Eastern
Venue: Sporting Park (Kansas City, KS)
TV: Fox Sports 1 (English), UniMas (Spanish), Univision Deportes (Spanish)
Online: Fox Sports Go (English), Fox Soccer 2Go (English, requires subscription), Univision Deportes En Vivo Extra (Spanish)
Check back in two hours for our gamethread.