The U.S. national team is in Panama in search of points, but the home team is likely to focus on ensuring the Americans don’t score goals.
Hernan ‘Bolillo’ Gomez is no dummy. The veteran Colombian coach and Panamanian national team boss knows full well that while earning victories at home in World Cup qualifying is key, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if Panama could hold the U.S. to a draw Tuesday.
Gomez didn’t come out and say the Canaleros will be playing for a point against the Americans, but nobody should be surprised if that is the approach Panama takes. It was the same approach Gomez’s team took against Mexico in the first match of the hexagonal round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and even though the Canaleros are coming off a loss to Trinidad and Tobago, a draw on Tuesday would still leave them in good shape.
“We suffered a loss that upset me, and the team, but if you look at the standings we are in third place,” Gomez said. “Which is where you want to be when these matches finish on Tuesday.”
A draw on Tuesday would keep Panama ahead of the United States, but earning that result won’t be easy against a U.S. team riding a wave of confidence from last Friday’s 6-0 dismantling of Honduras. The Americans have made a point in recent days to make it clear they expect a much different kind of match on Tuesday.
“We are not overconfident,” U.S. coach Bruce Arena said. “We know we’re playing against a very good opponent, and realize every time you play a World Cup qualifying game on the road in qualifying it will be a very difficult match.”
Panama will take heart in knowing it was able to hold the U.S. to a draw in the previous two meetings between these nations, both of which came in the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup. That included a penalty shootout victory over the Americans in the tournament’s third-place match.
For Gomez, the Hex is its own tournament, and he believes pragmatism is more important than entertainment value, particular for a team considered one of the underdogs in the field.
“In short tournaments, you have to have a lot of concentration, a lot of order and be effective, not play beautiful,” Gomez said. “You have to be practical and effective, but you must have a lot of order. It doesn’t make me sad to defend myself in determined moments. We can’t be frivolous. We aren’t the favorites in this tournament.
“I have no problem playing a (defensive) block that guarantees me a shutout first.”
Arena deployed a very attack-minded lineup against a Honduras team he knew would bunker in and keep numbers behind the ball, but all signs point to the Americans taking a more balanced approach in Panama City. Jermaine Jones is back from suspension and is expected to start in central midfield next to Michael Bradley. That would push Christian Pulisic into a wing role, and set up the U.S. in a formation that should match up well with Panama.
U.S. fans will see plenty of familiar faces in the Panama starting lineup, with as many as nine current and former MLS players expected to take the field against the Americans on Tuesday. Leading that group will be Seattle Sounders defender and MLS Cup final hero Roman Torres, former LA Galaxy goalkeeper Jaime Penedo and current San Jose Earthquakes standout Anibal Godoy.
Torres could see plenty of Sounders teammate Clint Dempsey, as he looks to slow down the U.S. striker while Dempsey looks to build on last Friday’s hat trick against Honduras. Houston Dynamo teammates DaMarcus Beasley and Adolfo Machado could cross paths on the flank as Machado is expected to start at right back for Panama while Beasley is in contention to play left back for the Americans.
Panama is expected to deploy a 4-4-2 formation, with former Real Salt Lake striker Luis Tejada and former Colorado Rapids forward Gabriel Torres up top. Godoy and former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez are expected to anchor the central midfield as they likely do battle with the U.S. pairing of Michael Bradley and Jones.