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Match preview: United States vs. Panama

It’s do-or-die for the USA.

Soccer: FIFA World Cup Qualifier-Costa Rica at USA Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Game: United States Men’s National Team vs. Panama

Date: Friday, Oct. 6

Time: 7:00 p.m. ET, 6:00 p.m. CT, 4:00 p.m. PT, 11:00 p.m. UTC

Venue: Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

Television: ESPN 2, Univision

Streaming: WatchESPN, Univision Now

All-time record: 11-1-6 (7-0-2 in WCQ), Last Meeting: D 1-1 in Group Stage of CONCACAF Gold Gup on July 8, 2017

The United States Men’s National Team faces the biggest test of the 2018 World Cup cycle Friday night when it welcomes Panama to Orlando City Stadium for the penultimate match of the Hex. The table stands as follows with two matches left to play, with trips to Russia on the line:

Hex Standings before Matchday Nine
USA Soccer

If the USA ends up in fourth place, they will have to play a two-legged playoff against a team from Asia to make the World Cup. If the USA falls to Panama, they can not guarantee themselves a third place spot and automatic qualification. A win would do wonders for the USA’s chances while a draw would leave Panama in the drivers seat ahead of Matchday 10.

The USA also closes out the Hex with a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. Honduras could play the spoiler and be the team to leave the USA in fifth place, and it has an away trip to Costa Rica before a home match against Mexico.

This match is about as big of a gut check as it gets for the USA and its program, against an inspired Panama side. Panama will remember the 2014 cycle, when it was five minutes away from qualification with a 2-1 lead over the USA in the last match of the Hex before Graham Zusi equalized, paving the way for an eventual stoppage time winner. Mexico secured the fourth place spot and a playoff with New Zealand, while Panama stayed home. Looking for their first World Cup ever, Los Canaleros will be ready to bunker in against a team it has earned a 1-1 result against in the last four meetings.

What to expect from Panama

Panama is going to sit back, defend, and absorb USA pressure while looking to lash out on the occasional counter-attack. Hernan Dario Gomez’s side will follow the blueprint set by Costa Rica from its 2-0 win over the USA at Red Bull Arena in early September. Panama’s players will also play more conservatively than normal because a draw benefits them, they are on the road in what should be a hostile atmosphere.

Panama knows it has been a little bit of a bogey against the USA in the last four meetings, and that there is no reason to depart from it physical and cagey style of play that has frustrated the Americans. Panama will be the side on the back foot, but it has more than enough talent to grab three points if the USA is not careful.

Panama are anchored by their spine of MLS-based players throughout the midfield and backline. Anibal Godoy and Armando Cooper will man the center of the park, while Seattle Sounders center back Roman Torres will command the backline, with more defensive instincts than he usually shows for club. Michael Murillo and Fidel Escobar will join Torres in a compact backline designed to take away space centrally and force aimless crosses.

Luis Tejada and Blas Perez are the reliable foundation of Panama’s capable attack, but Gabriel Torres, who spent time at Colorado Rapids is the most dynamic player that the USA backline will need to shut down.

Expect a bruising and disciplined performance from Panama, and expect Torres to be main release valve. If Panama gets a goal early, it could be a nightmare for the USA to claw back.

What to expect from the USA

Bruce Arena is rolling with his trusted veterans in the most important match of his second tenure. The usual suspects will all be on the pitch, Tim Howard, Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore, and now Christian Pulisic. Who slots in around them determines how the USA will play, although the pattern of the game is no mystery.

As often is the case at home, the USA will need find a breakthrough against a deep side committed to defending. There will be little space near goal, little space in the middle of the park, and acres of space in the USA’s own half for the other team to break into.

One big question for Arena is if he uses a three-man or four-man backline, but it seems unlikely Arena would use his tactical ‘curveball’ in such a crucial match. Proceeding with the idea that Arena uses four, expect Tim Ream as the likely center back partner for Geoff Cameron. Matt Besler is certainly a viable option, with Omar Gonzalez less likely. With DeAndre Yedlin fully healthy, he will play at right back with Jorge Villafana on the opposite side.

In the midfield, Arena has options alongside Michael Bradley. Acosta seems the most likely, but Union man Alejandro Bedoya could slot in as could Dax McCarty. Nagbe would also figure centrally. Otherwise, Nagbe should take up a spot on a wing with Pulisic on another wing. That is, if Arena uses two strikers with Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood.

If Arena selects just Altidore, Paul Arriola could play on a wing, or Arena could play Nagbe and Pulisic outside and stack the midfield with Bradley, Acosta AND Bedoya.

Clint Dempsey, whose presence always looms large in these big matches, is a likely candidate off the bench and a game changer.

For the USA, the question of the players will be who can be creative and dynamic enough to produce the type of magic needed to score on a resolute Panama. Can the USA create a high volume of high-quality chances? When Panama gets the ball and forces the issue one or two times, will USA turn off?

It falls on Christian Pulisic mainly to shoulder the creative burden, but Nagbe and Bradley will need to distribute the ball effectively to dangerous areas. This is exactly the type of game where Jozy Altidore needs to bully his way into a goal.

What to expect

The USA will have the slight edge, and come out firing at a high-level with its back nearly against the wall. Panama will bring the fire of its own, and it will be hard to find a second breakthrough. With the match at 1-1 in the 80th minute, will another American hero step up to claim the game? It seems more likely the USA will have to wait until it visits Trinidad and Tobago.

Prediction: USA 1, Panama 1