Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By DAN KARELL
After successfully navigating through the World Cup qualifying grind that is CONCACAF’s competitive Hexagonal round, the U.S. Men’s National Team has one match remaining before they can fully set their sights on Brazil.
Many of the first-team regulars in the squad are out due to injury or a coach’s decision from Jurgen Klinsmann, providing a number of players on the fringes of the squad a tremendous opportunity to impress the coaching staff with less than nine months remaining before next summer’s World Cup.
At Estadio Rommel Fernandez on Tuesday night, a young and overall inexperienced U.S. team will face a Panama side that American forward Jozy Altidore believes will be inspired by an entire nation backing the team. Panama, which lost to the U.S. in the Gold Cup final back in July, needs to win to have a chance at avoiding elimination from World Cup qualifying.
“Tuesday will be a tough game, because it’s an important game for (Panama) to qualify, and they will feel that they are playing with the whole country,” Altidore, who has scored in his last six starts for the U.S., told U.S. Soccer. “But it is also a good time for us to show that we are a good team.”
Not only will the U.S. be facing a difficult CONCACAF opponent, but they’ll be doing so without many of their recognizable stars. At least six regulars, including Clint Dempsey, Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan and Jermaine Jones, will miss out due to injury while Matt Besler and Tim Howard were released to their clubs after the 2-0 win last Friday over Jamaica.
An opportunity now presents itself to Klinsmann and his staff, who can experiment with the starting lineup and give some of the more inexperienced players an invaluable chance to play in a CONCACAF road environment.
Players like Brad Davis, Michael Orozco, and Chris Wondolowski are all experienced in their own right but will have an opportunity to prove that they belong on the 23-man World Cup squad. Meanwhile, youngsters like Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson can build off their most recent performances in the U.S. shirt.
“Everyone that is here is highly focused and wants to have a good game,” Klinsmann told assembled media members following training on Monday. “I told the players already before the game last week that we are already preparing things for Brazil, so whoever goes on the field here has to show everything he has, in order to build his case for Brazil.”
Last Friday, Panama’s hopes for World Cup qualification were dealt a huge blow in their 2-1 defeat to Mexico, but the Canaleros could still find themselves in the play-off vs. New Zealand if Panama can defeat the U.S. and Mexico lose to Costa Rica. With all three CONCACAF matches on Tuesday occurring at the same time, a goal in one game can affect the mood of another as each side keeps an eye on the other scores, and Canaleros stars Blas Perez, Gabriel Torres, and Felipe Baloy will do everything they can to keep Panama’s hopes for a first-ever World Cup appearance alive.
“We expect a very energetic and highly motivated Panamanian side that will do everything possible in their capabilities to still make (qualification) happen,” Klinsmann said. “In football things happen really quickly. An early goal suddenly in Costa Rica changes the dynamic in the stadium here, changes their belief, and we are prepared for that.”
Against the backdrop of Panama and Mexico’s qualifying situation, Klinsmann and Co. are determined to leave Panama City on Tuesday night with nothing less than three points. The team is experienced against Panama, having faced and defeated them twice this summer, and Klinsmann can still rely on veterans like DaMarcus Beasley, Brad Guzan in goal and Clarence Goodson in defense.
Nearby in midfield, Kyle Beckerman should provide a steady presence, Graham Zusi can prove once more why he belongs in the first team’s starting lineup, and up top, Altidore is one of the most feared forwards in all of CONCACAF and will take the attention of the Panamanian defense away from the other U.S. attackers.
“The mentality is to go into Tuesday night with an opportunity to get another game under our belt and obviously try to get three points,” Guzan told U.S. Soccer. “For me, every game I get (to start) is important. It’s a huge chance to not only play but to prove to my teammates and to the coaches that I can be counted on and step in and hopefully do a job for the team.”
All together, there is a lot for the U.S. to accomplish as a whole and as individuals against Panama. From a team standpoint, finishing with 22 points at the top of the Hexagonal would tie the most points ever earned in this round of qualifying from when the U.S. set the record in 2005. From an individual perspective, players know that a spot in Brazil could very well be on the line.
“We have only a few games going forward, so all of our players are 100 percent focused,” Klinsmann said. “We know what’s at stake for Panama, we know what’s at stake for Mexico, but we have to take care of our own situation and we badly want to have three points getting out of (Tuesday’s) game.”