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CONCACAF Gold Cup Preview: United States vs. Panama

NFL: Cleveland Browns at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Game: United States Men’s National Team vs Panama (Gold Cup)

Date: Saturday, July 8

Time: 4:30 PM ET, 3:30 PM CT, 1:30 PM PT, 8:30 PM UDT

Venue: Nissan Stadium, Nahville, Tenn.

Television: Fox, Univision

Streaming: Fox Sports Go, Fox Soccer 2Go, Univision Now

All-time record: 11-1-5, 5-1-3 in Gold Cup. Last meeting: 1-1, Mar. 28, 2017 (World Cup Qualifying)

The United States Men’s National Team opens its CONCACAF Gold Cup Campaign in pursuit of its sixth title today against Panama at 4:30 p.m. ET at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tenn. The Americans have faced Los Canaleros nine times in the competition, including two draws at the 2015 Gold Cup. For the USA, the pressure is always on to win the tournament, especially on home soil, despite Bruce Arena deploying a ‘B’ team. Panama will think that this year is its best opportunity to advance to the final with Mexico and the USA both bringing weakened sides, and will try to improve on its third place finish in 2015.

While the USA has not locked up its spot in next year’s World Cup in Russia, it looks poised to do so after it changed managers from Jurgen Klinsmann to Bruce Arena. Arena has revitalized the squad and the specter of 2018 will likely loom over this year’s Gold Cup. The goal is always to win, but the onus will be placed on finding players to fill out the core and make the jump from fringe player to World Cup roster. The important list of USA players who had less than 10 caps coming into a Gold Cup and made the World Cup roster the following year includes Matt Besler, Mix Diskerud, Nick Rimando and Chris Wondolowski, who all made the jump from 2013 to 2014.

With Martinique and Nicaragua as the other teams in Group B, Panama and USA are both favored heavily to advance. Today’s match should be the best fixture in the group and could decide who goes through in the top spot. With three groups of four teams at the tournament, the top two teams from each group advance and the top two third place teams fill out the quarterfinals.

What to watch for Panama

Head Coach Hernan Dario Gomez has tried to shift into a new era for Panama, and will be without usual contributors like star forward Blas Perez, striker Luis Tejada, and Sounders defender Roman Torres. MLS fans will be familiar with a few faces on Panama’s roster, with Michael Amir Murillo, Miguel Carmago, Armando Cooper and Anibal Godoy all suiting up for Los Canaleros.

The last three times Panama and USA have met ended in 1-1 draws, including the 2015 Gold Cup third place match, which Panama won 3-2 on penalty kicks. Panama is a physical and aggressive team that plays a cagey Central American brand of football. Gomez won’t have his squad sit back completely like Honduras, butthey are equally comfortable soaking up pressure and holding possession in the attacking third.

The key questions will be if relatively unheralded strikers Ricardo Clarke and Abdiel Arroyo can match the production of Blas Perez and Luis Tejada. The center-back pairing of Roderick Miller and Roberto Chen is also unproven together and will have to deal with a physical Dom Dwyer. Normal No. 1 keeper Jaime Penedo is out of the squad as well and will likely be replaced by Jose Calderon who plays his club soccer in Honduras.

On the road in a hostile atmosphere, Panama will probably be set up more defensively, with Godoy and Cooper anchoring a deep-lying midfield. As always, the USA must be wary of counter-attacks and set pieces.

What to watch for the USA

Arena’s ‘B’ side is probably one the best of its kind in USMNT memory, and the 2-1 win in a friendly over Ghana last Saturday showed the technical ability and creativity of a few of its players. While there are some regulars around, like Philadelphia Union star Alejandro Bedoya, retrofitted outside back Graham Zusi, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan, the players that will make or break this tournament for the USA are the MLS Stars with less than 10 caps: Kellyn Acosta, Dom Dwyer, and Dax McCarty.

Acosta has already shown he could be the midfielder of the future with great ball-winning, coverage and distribution, while Dax McCarty has excellent vision. Together they will form the spine of the this team in central midfield. Dwyer should start up top as a lone striker, and while he snatched at a few chances against Ghana, he opened up his international scoresheet and should find himself with a few great looks in front of goal. Joe Corona is a likely candidate for the No. 10, while the wings could be Gyasi Zardes, Paul Arriola or Kellyn Rowe.

The centerback pairing of Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez is surprisingly dependable for an overall inexperienced squad, while Jorge Villafana should be at left back with either Graham Zusi or Eric Lichaj at right back. Villafana has made a strong push in 2017 to earn a left back spot on the World Cup roster, and could cement his case with a strong showing this tournament. Brad Guzan will start in goal.

At home, the USA should play on the front foot, control possession and hopefully create the better of the chances against Panama. While the outside midfielders might be lacking creativity and maybe some technical skill (looking at you, Gyasi Zardes), the combined vision among Acosta, McCarty and Corona should be enough to keep Panama occupied. If Dwyer can finish his chances, or substitutes Juan Agueldo or Jordan Morris, then Arena’s side will be in business. While the USA can progress out of this group with any result here, three points should be the goal as a tone-setter at home.

What to expect

USA will control the game and put too much pressure on Panama, even if they might be able to find a goal somewhere against the run of play. Arena’s side is bursting with confidence, and the players will want to earn a good result against Panama for a change.

Prediction: 3-1 USA. Hopefully I’m not getting too optimistic here, but ‘B’ side or not, the USA has more skill. It will have to trump Panama’s bruising physicality.