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USA vs. Panama, 2018 World Cup Qualifiers: What to watch for

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The USMNT trades Los Catrachos for Los Canaleros with a chance to either sink back to the bottom of the Hexagonal table or possibly vault themselves as high as second.

Honduras v United States - FIFA 2018 World Cup Qualifier Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Shake off the euphoria just a little bit. The United States played exciting, fun soccer against a normally stingy opponent, and the weight of the brutal Costa Rica loss seemed to fade just a little bit. And I really don’t mean to rain on your parade, I don’t. If the U.S. wins big on Tuesday they’re into third place, the last automatic qualifying spot, and if they get some help from Honduras, there’s a very slim chance they could even leapfrog Costa Rica into second. But there’s also the chance the U.S. slip back to the bottom of the table with a loss and other results going against them. So, be happy. Please. But there’s still more work to be done.

Panama has had a mixed start to the Hex. They squeaked out a win away to Honduras and even managed a point at home against Mexico, but they also lost to a Trinidad & Tobago squad that before that point seemed to be the team most likely to finish bottom of the Hex when everything is said and done. No doubt Panama will be looking to get their qualifying campaign back on track at home, not wanting to be leapfrogged for third place by the U.S. There’s also a hint of revenge here, as Panama’s last World Cup qualifying campaign crushingly ended with a late 3-2 loss to the United States in the last round of play. Don’t expect Panama to have forgotten.

Recent Form:

Panama

L (0-1) - Trinidad & Tobago - WCQ

W (1-0) - Costa Rica - Copa Centroamericana

W (1-0) - El Salvador - Copa Centroamericana

L (0-1) - Honduras - Copa Centroamericana

W (2-1) - Nicaragua - Copa Centroamericana

USA

W (6-0) - Honduras - WCQ

W (1-0) - Jamaica - Friendly

D (0-0) - Serbia - Friendly

L (0-4) - Costa Rica - WCQ

L (2-1) - Mexico - WCQ

What to Watch for:

Formation Game - I know changing tactics and players and whatnot doesn’t make sense after a 6 to nothing win. Why would you change anything? Because you’re on the road in Central America and things are about to get rough, not to mention you lost another couple players to injuries, that’s why. The 4-4-2 diamond worked well against Honduras, especially after grabbing the early goal and forcing them to essentially push more offensively than they probably wanted to so early in the game. But I still think Bruce Arena wants to deploy the 4-2-3-1 when necessary, and I have a sneaking suspicion this is a prime game for it. After Friday, it’s mostly a question of whether you can afford to take Clint Dempsey out of the lineup.

Insane for Jermaine - Jermaine Jones has finished his suspension and will be available for selection against Panama. Arena seemed very impressed with his January Camp, even if his performance pairing with Michael Bradley in the 4-2-3-1 was middling against Serbia. I think he’ll play against Panama, especially with the bit he adds to the midfield and knowing how rough these Hex games get the further on they go. I’m just not sure where his best spot on the field is for the U.S. right now. Or if he even has one.

1 Is the Loneliest Number - The striker situation looked just about perfect on Friday, considering a presumed starter and an exciting reserve were sent home from camp due to injury. Dempsey obviously notched a hat trick, but Jozy Altidore also played excellent hold-up ball and distributed well, notching himself an assist and couple more hockey assists on Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey goals. And while he’s not the best lone striker in the world, he would certainly be the most likely candidate to fill the role for Arena. Meanwhile, Dempsey seems to have shaken off any concerns related to the irregular heartbeat that kept him sidelined the second half of 2016, but can he go another 90 minutes on just a couple days rest? There are serious questions about how the attack will actually line up against Panama, and as the strikers, go, so goes the rest of the team.

Lineup Prediction:

I am very torn on this one, so I’ll throw out two. I think Bruce Arena will most likely stick with the two striker set after how productive it was against Honduras, and it will most likely look like this.

This is essentially the formation the U.S. ran for the vast majority of the game against Honduras, the only major difference being Ream replacing John Anthony Brooks. And that is a very big loss for the U.S., make no mistake. But the back line still looked stable, and Ream’s experience wins out over Walker Zimmerman in Arena’s mind. Or at least how I imagine Arena’s mind. This is the not-broken, not-fixed lineup. On the other hand, I also wouldn’t be surprised to see Arena trot out something more along these lines:

This is the “Let’s just not lose this one” starting XI. Jones is their to give the midfield more bite and prevent counterattacks from starting from further up the field while Bradley sits in the hole. Sacha Kljestan is a very different type of playmaker from Christian Pulisic. Pulisic is all energy, always looking to cut towards goal. Kljestan is a bit more possession-oriented, and is one more apt to look to calm things down and recycle the ball than just run straight at the back line for 90 minutes. Pulisic can do that with the space afforded to him on the wing and the gravitational pull of Jozy Altidore up top, still providing a threat from the outside, and this was the formation that offered up so much space for Darlington Nagbe to run into on the left as well. With three dynamic attackers, the U.S. can afford to be a bit more conservative and just make sure they leave Panama with at least one more point to their name. Either way, the game should be a good one.