Hexagonal: Panama's attention turns from baseball to soccer

Panama is the only the team in the Hexagonal that has not played in the World Cup, but that doesn't stop Blas Perez from believing.

"We know we have a great team, a great group of players," says the FC Dallas striker. "We just have to show it on the field."

This is only the second time the Canaleros have even played in the Hexagonal. The first time they finished last with only two points from 10 games.

That was in 2005, the year of the greatest accomplishment in Panamanian soccer history. The Canaleros reached the final of the Gold Cup, where they lost to the United States on penalty kicks.

The star of that team was Julio Cesar Dely Valdes, who was then at the end of his career as a player after stints in Italy, France and Spain.

Julio Cesar, twin brother Jorge and their older brother, Armando, who died in 2004 three years after a heart attack left him in a coma, along with Rommel Fernandez, who died in 1993 at the age of 27 in a car accident of Spain, were the first generation of soccer stars in a country where baseball used to be king.

Julio Cesar is now the head coach of the national team, and Jorge is the assistant coach, and they are credited with turning around the national team since taking charge in 2010.

Indeed, all attention in Panama is on soccer and Hexagonal, while the national baseball team missed out on the 2013 World Baseball Classic, losing to Brazil of all teams in qualifying.

WHY THE USA SHOULD BE CONFIDENT. The USA is 8-1-2 (W-L-T) overall and 3-0-1 in World Cup qualifying against the Canaleros and 2-0-1 on Panamanian soil -- the best records against any team in the Hexagonal.

WHY THE USA SHOULD BE WORRIED. Panama became the first team to beat the USA in group play at the Gold Cup -- a span of 27 games -- when it won, 2-1, in Tampa two years ago.

WHO YOU ALREADY KNOW. Besides Perez, two other Panamanians have MLS experience. Carlos Rodriguez (FC Dallas) and Gabriel Gomez (Philadelphia) spent the 2012 season in MLS. Goalie Jaime Penedo, defender Felipe Baloy and Gomez are all holdovers from the Panama team that lost to the USA in the 2005 Gold Cup final. Luis Tejada, nicknamed "El Matador," is injured and won't travel from Mexican club Toluca for Wednesday's opener against Costa Rica.

WHO YOU'LL SOON KNOW. The Dely Valdes brothers are nurturing a strong crop of young Panamanian strikers. Rolando Blackburn, who goes by the nickname "El Toro" and had the winning goal in the 2-0 win over Canada that turned the semifinal round of qualifying in Panama's favor, plays in Slovakia, and Yairo Yau is at Australia's Sydney FC after playing in Colombia. Both are only 23.

Day 1: Feb. 6 vs. Costa Rica (TV: beIN Sport, beIN Sport en Espanol, 9 p.m. ET).
U.S. Series:
Day 5 -- June 11: USA vs. Panama at site TBD; Day 10: Oct. 15 -- Panama vs. USA in Panama City.

PANAMA ROSTER (Costa Rica game):
Goalkeepers: Jaime Penedo (Municipal, Guatemala), Luis Mejia (Fenix, Uruguay).
Defenders: Luis Henriquez (Lech Poznan, Poland), Felipe Baloy (Santos, Mexico), Roman Torres (Millonarios, Colombia), Carlos Rodriguez (Chepo), Jean Carlos Cedeno (Alianza), Harold Cummings (Arabe Unido), Leonel Parris (Tauro).
Midfielders: Rolando Escobar (Anzoategui, Venezuela), Amilcar Henriquez (Inde. Medellin, Colombia), Gabriel Gomez (Atl. Junior, Colombia), Armando Cooper (Godoy Cruz, Argentina), Anibal Godoy (Chepo), Juan De Dios Perez (Tauro), Marcos Sanchez (Tauro).
Forwards:  Yairo Yau (Sydney FC, Australia), Rolando Blackburn (FK Senica, Slovakia), Blas Perez (FC Dallas), Luis Renteria (Tauro), Alcibiades Rojas (Atletico Chiriqui).

Next: Costa Rica
Previously: Mexico | Jamaica
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