The USA men’s team has never lost in Panama City and buoyed by a 6-0 stomping of Honduras would seem primed to post a fourth straight win Tuesday in the Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
The teams play their fourth Hexagonal match on the heels of drastically different outcomes on Friday night. Panama lost its first Hex game to Trinidad & Tobago in Port of Spain, 1-0, and as for
the Americans, life is good once again.
A pulverizing performance fueled by Clint Dempsey
’s second U.S. hat trick and a superb game (one goal, two assists, dozens of sweet
touches) by Christian Pulisic
has certainly reversed the grim mood of nightmarish November losses to Mexico at home (1-2) and in Costa Rica (0-4). In his first U.S. game since being sidelined
by an irregular heartbeat in August, Dempsey played the full 90 minutes and scored his first goal while grappling with Henry Figueroa
, who dragged Dempsey to the ground but couldn't
stop him from blasting a shot high into the net. "He's like: 'How many minutes do you think you can give me?'" Dempsey said of his conversation with head coach Bruce
Arena. "I said, 'I'll give you all the minutes I can.'"
Yet the badly needed three points are just that. Even if the Americans sweep their three remaining home games, they
would have 12 points, which probably won’t be enough to grab a spot in the top three and qualify for Russia directly. Road points are vital and by knocking off Panama after losing its first two
games, T&T served up a sober reminder that in the Hex, no away venue is a cozy one regardless of past records.
“The away games are always tougher than the home games, especially
with the conditions,” said midfielder Jermaine Jones
, who sat out Friday with a suspension but is a likely starter Tuesday night. “It will be hot, the field maybe will be a little
bit bumpy. But if we go out and make our own game, and play our game -- we showed it last time in 2013 -- we can come here and win the game.”
They won that game, 3-2, by stunning
Panama with stoppage-time goals from Graham Zusi
and Aron Johannsson
. The Americans had already qualified and the Canaleros were within minutes of a first World Cup appearance at the
expense of Mexico when their world caved in.
Four years later, the nations are separated by one point in the standings. Panama is third with four points and the USA, though tied with
Honduras and T&T in points with three, holds a slight edge in goal difference, the first tie-breaker.
Despite its failure to beat the U.S. at home in any of their four meetings,
Panama thumped the U.S., 2-1, in the 2011 Gold Cup during group play, and toppled the Americans again in the 2015 Gold Cup third-place game, 3-2, on penalty kicks after a 1-1 tie.
“We know it’s going to be a tough game down in Panama and we’re not expecting to win, 6-0 like we did tonight,” said defender Geoff Cameron
on Friday, “but we know
it’s wide-open with the results that happened tonight. We know if we take care of business down in Panama we climb up the table and get back to where we belong.”
players left the squad after the Honduras game
but only one, Tijuana midfielder Paul
, has been called in. He got the call Saturday morning, drove from his home north of the border in Chula Vista down to Tijuana to pick up his soccer gear, and flew to San Jose in time to
take the team charter to Panama City Saturday night.
An injury to Sebastian Lletget
in the Honduras game opened up a space on the roster for Arriola, who is not likely to start but
gives head coach Bruce Arena
another option on the right side of midfield, where Alejandro Bedoya
performed well in relief of Lletget.
Arriola scored twice in his three
appearances for the U.S. last year and one of his goals came as a sub for Bedoya, so he can harbor realistic hopes of getting on the field and riding the momentum of a rousing victory.
“I wouldn’t say relaxed,” he said of the mood he encountered upon joining up. “I would say a little more at ease, right, but still understanding that the next game is extremely
important. We don’t want to walk out of here without any points. The goal is to come here and get a win. But in Concacaf, it’s hard to go away from home and get a result in hostile
environments like these.”
Recent success in Panama City notwithstanding, the Americans will prepare for a tense, tight encounter such as their visit for a semifinal-round qualifier
in October 2004, when only a very late, possibly offside goal by Cobi Jones
salvaged a 1-1 tie.
And how’s this for eerie. A month later, they hosted Panama at RFK Stadium and
won convincingly. The score? 6-0. And was there a hat trick? Yes, by Eddie Johnson
So the message circulating amongst Arena and the players is basically, as fun as Friday was,
Tuesday is another test.
When asked if the performance and scoreline surprised him, Jones replied, “No. This is what I said already before the game: that when everybody’s
really focused and on the same page, that we have a good team, we have good quality. But you have to show it every time, not only once.”