After a horrid start to World Cup qualifying, the United States entered Friday’s game against Honduras desperate to win by any scoreline. They probably weren’t putting too much stock in a 6-0 victory, but that’s exactly what the USMNT got thanks to outstanding games from Clint Dempsey and Christian Pulisic. Now in a far more viable position in the CONCACAF Hexagonal standings, they travel to Panama tonight knowing that a win will vault them into an automatic qualification spot.
As any longtime observer of soccer in the Hex knows, though, trips to Panama are often fraught. Aside from the soggy field at Estadio Rommel Fernandez and the muggy conditions (humidity will be high as always tomorrow night), los Canaleros tend to see a lot of acrimony in their games. Things get heated in the heat, in other words, and though the last three USMNT qualifiers there have resulted in seven points, they involve no fewer than three stoppage-time result-changing goals for the Americans (“San Zusi” and Aron Johannsson in the last Hex, and Cobi Jones way back in 2006).
Key player: Jozy Altidore
Altidore quietly had a really strong game against Honduras. While his one assist looks small time alongside the goals from Dempsey and Pulisic, his ability to post up in traffic on the edge of the box and provide exactly the pass those around him needed, he was significantly involved on the first and fifth goals, and his movement drew defenders out of the way at key moments on the second and third. If Altidore doesn’t have the game he did, the US doesn’t even approach 6-0.
Things will be different against Panama, who will not make the sort of mistakes Honduras did all night in San Jose. There’s a reason Panama’s three Hex games thus far have had a total of two goals scored (one for, one against). The USMNT will need a lot of things to break down a team that prefers to grind games to a pulp. It’s tempting to underline the more eye-catching talents of Dempsey and Pulisic, but without Altidore’s intelligent work as a target man, those two won’t get anywhere near as many good looks.
Location: Estadio Rommel Fernandez (Ciudad de Panama, Panama)
Kickoff time: 10:00pm Eastern
Projected USMNT starting 11: (4312) - Tim Howard; Geoff Cameron, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream/Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley; Alejandro Bedoya, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones; Christian Pulisic; Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore
Bench: Nick Rimando, David Bingham, Walker Zimmerman, Besler/Ream, Jorge Villafaña, Graham Zusi, Dax McCarty, Kellyn Acosta, Darlington Nagbe, Sacha Kljestan, Paul Arriola, Chris Wondolowski
There have been several changes to the roster for this one. Four players (starters John Brooks and Sebastian Lletget, as well as Jordan Morris and Michael Orozco) have returned to their clubs, with illness forcing Brooks out while Lletget and Morris are both being kept out due to injury. Club Tijuana winger Paul Arriola has been added to camp, while Jermaine Jones is back from suspension.
As for the actual starting eleven tonight, Arena said to expect “four or five” changes. Normally I’d have listed a team here with only the two enforced changes and the realistic chance that Beasley replaces Villafaña, but Arena is probably being honest here. As such, I have Ream (or Besler) in for Brooks, Beasley in at left back, Bedoya replacing the injured Lletget, and Jones starting on the left side of the diamond over Nagbe.
Admittedly, I’m not sure about that last one, but my instinct that Arena will actually make the four changes is strong enough that I’m making a guess. Jones is less reliable in possession than Nagbe and goes wherever he pleases, which is not great on a team that otherwise seems better off with real structure. On the other hand, we can’t underestimate his ability to aggravate a Panamanian side that is combustible to say the least. CONCACAF is still basically Thunderdome, and if Jones can goad someone into a red card, he’s worth the risks that come with his all-or-nothing game.
We could also see a flat 442 with Pulisic and Nagbe wide while Bradley is partnered by...Jones? Bedoya? Acosta (wishful thinking probably, but he’s ready)? The latter two make more sense given the mental discipline required to not just abandon Bradley if that’s the preference.
Projected Panama starting 11: (4141) - Jaime Penedo; Michael Murillo/Adolfo Machado, Machado/Roman Torres, Felipe Baloy/R. Torres, Luis Ovalle; Amilcar Henriquez; Alberto Quintero/Tony Taylor, Anibal Godoy, Armando Cooper, Edgar Barcenas/Quintero; Abdiel Arroyo/Gabriel Torres
This one’s a bit tricky, because Panama were pretty dire in their 1-0 loss to Trinidad & Tobago. That might cause Hernan Dario Gomez to make some changes, which would include bringing in New York Red Bulls right back Murillo to boost the attack and then sorting between Machado (Houston Dynamo), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders), or the 36 year old Baloy. Machado was the right back on Friday, and could still end up there if Gomez wants to be cautious.
Other changes could include bringing in Taylor, a former US youth national team prospect who was with NYCFC last year, or dropping Abdiel Arroyo for former Colorado Rapids attacker Gabriel Torres.
Referee: Roberto Garcia (Mexico)
Available TV: beIN Sports USA (English), Telemundo (Spanish), NBC Universo (Spanish)
Available streaming: beINSports Connect (English), Telemundo Deportes En Vivo (Spanish), NBC Universo Now (Spanish)
For listings in other countries, check out LiveSoccerTV.com.
What are you drinking?: I’m superstitious, so I’m going to Dock FC again, and I’m ordering a pint of District Common lager from Atlas Brewing before kickoff, and I’ll probably get a Guinness at halftime too. You win 6-0, you don’t mess around too much with what happened.
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