The United States and Panama enter tonight's Gold Cup match with very different objectives. For the USMNT, it's an opportunity to improve on two straight dire outings. With the tournament's compressed schedule and the triple-digit temperatures in Kansas City today, there will also surely be a focus on avoiding injury and conserving energy whenever possible.
Panama can't really afford to think about those luxuries, because their fate hangs in the balance. A loss doesn't mathematically eliminate them - at least, as of this writing - but it would take a bizarre twist of fate for that scenario to happen. In all likelihood, Panama needs at least one point - and possibly all three - to get themselves into the quarterfinals.
USMNT Projected Starting 11: I think we'll see a return to the group that managed to hold off Honduras in the opener. That means Brad Guzan in goal behind a back four of Timothy Chandler, Ventura Alvarado, John Brooks, and Fabian Johnson. The midfield diamond will remain, though putting DeAndre Yedlin and Gyasi Zardes on the wings means it will again lack balance and support for the center. Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley will man those central roles, incidentally. Up front, I think we'll see Clint Dempsey return to a forward role, while I suspect Aron Johansson will spell Jozy Altidore.
Off the bench? Look for Chris Wondolowski and Graham Zusi to come in more or less regardless of how the game is going. It'd be nice to give Bradley a rest too, and Alejandro Bedoya could use some minutes to accelerate his return from injury, so we could see the FC Nantes midfielder step in if things are going well enough for the US.
Match previews: At Stars and Stripes FC, Rob Usry wants to see the USMNT show less vulnerability to counter-attacks. Brian Straus, writing for Sports Illustrated, draws strong parallels between this game and their last official CONCACAF meeting. Matt Doyle scouted Panama for MLSsoccer, closing with an interesting (though also depressing) factoid.
What are you drinking: Not so muggy today, but I'm out of beer. I think I'll go with an Old Fashioned made with Evan Williams Single Barrel instead.
Prediction: The current USMNT appears incapable of forcing lower-level opposition to play up to their level, so I expect a third straight unpleasant slog. In the end, however, the quality that won't be apparent for 99% of the game will become clear in a couple of bursts. Johansson and Dempsey score, Panama pulls one back very late but can't grab another. 2-1 USA.
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