With its World Cup qualifying campaign back on track, the United States men’s national soccer team now faces a tough road game to test its new-found confidence.
The 6-0 demolition of Honduras gave the Americans their first three points of the final round of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup and provided some much-needed momentum ahead of Tuesday’s game in hostile territory in Panama.
“The points were obviously very valuable. We were able to put our goal differential back in a good place and for our confidence and the spirit of our team it was important,” said captain Michael Bradley. “We feel good about things. It’s been a good week. We all understand that just because we’ve had one good result, we’re not out of the woods yet. We understand it’s going to be a very difficult game here on Tuesday night.”
Estadio Rommel Fernandez, on the outskirts of Panama City, is one of the more hostile venues in the CONCACAF region. With a fiercely passionate supporters’ group that celebrates goals by throwing copious amounts of beer in the air, the Americans will have to battle the atmosphere as much as the opposition on the field.
After three games, Panama sits one point ahead of the Americans in the third and final automatic World Cup qualifying berth in CONCACAF’s final round, also known as the Hex.
The Americans broke Panama’s hearts four years ago with two late goals to win 3-2 in the final game of qualifying, when Panama had been on the cusp of its first World Cup berth in 2013. A notoriously difficult place to play in the best of times, that recent history means Tuesday night will feature an extremely hostile environment for the Americans.
“The away games are always tougher than the home games, especially with the conditions,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones. “It will be hot. The field will be a little bit bumpy, but if we go out and make our own game and play our game, we showed it in 2013 that we can come here and win the game.”
The team flew into Panama on Sunday with a few changes. Jordan Morris, Sebastian Lletget, John Brooks and Michael Orozco all departed camp with injuries or, in Brooks’ case, a sinus infection.
Added to the roster was 23-year-old Paul Arriola, who plays for Club Tijuana in Mexico and has three appearances at the senior level.
“As young guys, you kind of wait for your opportunity. Unfortunately, there were quite a few injuries going into this camp so now here we are with some younger guys, including myself,” said Arriola, who traveled to San Diego from Tijuana to make the trip to Panama with the team. “For us, the most important thing is to take advantage of the opportunity.”
Team USA is fresh off a 6-0 victory over Honduras, but starters Sebastian Lletget and John Brooks will not be with the team in Panama City. Reeling from a 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tabago, Panama will be looking to bounce back at home but without star striker Blas Perek.
Team USA leads the all-time series 11-1-4, including a 5-1 advantage in World Cup Qualifying matches. Though USA will be missing key players, Forward Clint Dempsey appears to be playing at the top of his game, alongside midfielder Christian Pulisic.
Look for this dynamic duo to recreate the same magic they produced vs Honduras and pull off at 2-1 upset in Panama’s home turf.