The United States Men’s National Team played to a scoreless draw against Mexico at the Estadio Azteca. Next on the schedule is the final home fixture of the CONCACAF Octagonal, as Gregg Berhalter leads his squad against Panama at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida. Three points at this juncture could be crucial to securing a spot at the 2022 World Cup.
The opposition is led by Thomas Christiansen, a former Spanish international who was appointed in July of 2020. The 49-year-old has led Los Canaleros (The Canal Men) to fifth place in the eight-team group, which would earn a spot on the couch watching the World Cup at home. Panama was looking to extend the manager, but he reportedly has an offer from a club in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A.
The two nations met on Matchday Five at the Estadio Rommel Fernández in Panama City, with the hosts claiming a 1-0 victory. Panama hit a skid in the last window with a 1-2-0 record, losing to Costa Rica and Mexico by identical 1-0 margins but defeating Jamaica, 3-2. The current stanza opened with a disappointing 1-1 draw against an already eliminated Honduras.
“I assume my responsibilities and continue,” said the manager. “This has been a stumbling block. Now against the United States, in Orlando, we are going to go full throttle to try and win. The team is sad about the result, despite getting a point, because we all had the expectations and hopes of getting the three points that would have left us in a different situation and with a different taste in our mouths.”
Christiansen named a 26-player squad for the three-match window. Only four call-ups are from the domestic Liga Panameña de Fútbol, with nine competing in Europe. Notable performers such as Armando Cooper, Roderick Miller, and José Fajardo were left out.
GOALKEEPERS (4): Luis Mejía (Unión Española), Orlando Mosquera (Carabobo), Éric Hughes (Tauro), César Samudio (Independiente)
DEFENDERS (8): Harold Cummings (Árabe Unido), Eric Davis (Dunajská Streda), Fidel Escobar (Cultural Leonesa), Michael Amir Murillo (Anderlecht), Andrés Andrade (Arminia Bielefeld), César Blackman (Dunajská Streda), Jorge Gutiérrez (Tauro), José Córdoba (Levski Sofia)
MIDFIELDERS (10): Alberto Quintero (Universitario), Aníbal Godoy (Nashville SC), Yoel Bárcenas (Leganés), José Luis Rodríguez (Sporting Gijón), Adalberto Carrasquilla (Houston Dynamo), César Yanis (Zamora), Abdiel Ayarza (Cusco), Cristian Martínez (Monagas), Víctor Medina (Saprissa), Freddy Góndola (Alajuelense)
FORWARDS (4): Gabriel Torres (Deportes Antofagasta), Rolando Blackburn (Royal Pari), Cecilio Waterman (Cobresal), Ismael Díaz (Universidad Católica)
Local media has questioned the manager’s lineup decisions, noting an inability to score goals and lack of efficiency in the final third. Regardless of criticism, Christiansen’s personnel are best suited for a 4-2-3-1, with the three advanced midfielders buzzing around the box but often settling for a shot from distance. The team is dangerous on set pieces and the counter-attack, randomly pushing multiple players forward to create mismatches and overloads.
Luis Mejía has started every match at goalkeeper during the third qualifying round. The 30-year-old competes for Unión Española in Chile, joining the club in January. He comes off his line early on set pieces and challenges runners, sacrificing his body with little regard for the opponent. The 6’3” Panama City homegrown talent can be difficult to beat: his last five goals were surrendered from penalties, an unlucky rebound, and close-range efforts.
Fidel Escobar played every minute at the 2018 World Cup and in the Octagonal, but consistency at the club level has rarely lined up with his international stature. The 27-year-old recently went on loan to Cultural Leonesa in the third-tier Spanish Primera División RFEF in search of playing time, which should sharpen his aggressive tackling and physical play. His partner could be Andrés Andrade of Arminia Bielefeld. At a rangy 6’2”, he frequently wins aerial duels and dispossesses opponents of the ball.
Left back Eric Davis has carved out a solid career as a “legend” at Dunajská Streda in the Slovak Super Liga, a dangerous player in the final third with an accurate long-distance shot. The 30-year-old looks to cut inside and unleash with the outside of the foot or sneak into the back post for a rebound. On the other side of the formation is Amir Murillo, a straight-line vertical threat who is one of the most dynamic players in CONCACAF. He has one goal and four assists this season for Anderlecht and should be making a big transfer during the summer.
Nashville SC’s Aníbal Godoy lines up in the defensive midfielder role but is at his best during the build-up with a high passing accuracy. He will push high up the field to pressure the opponent, working in tandem with box-to-box Adalberto Carrasquilla to cover the center of the formation. His 23-year-old partner already has 27 caps, making an impact at the club and international level. The Panama City pinball constantly intercepts passes, drives forward, and creates for his teammates, looking a likely candidate for a future transfer to Europe.
Christiansen utilizes a tricky trio of attackers behind the striker. At 34 years old, Alberto Quintero is likely in his final cycle with the national team. He has a low center of gravity and can be difficult to push off the ball, but a recent injury may keep him out of the match. Zamora’s César Yanis covers the width of the field from touchline to touchline and works hard to press the back line. The winger likes to receive passes at his feet and charge at opponents. Capable of lining up on either side or in the hole, Yoel Bárcenas is pacey and runs directly at defenders. His most dangerous area is at the top of the box, but there is a tendency to hold possession aimlessly without a final product. The highly talented José Luis Rodríguez – another creative dribbler – could also start, but his influence has lessened over the Octagonal.
With Fajardo off the roster, the scoring responsibility should fall to Rolando Blackburn. The 32-year-old attacker has scored 12 goals for Los Canaleros since debuting in 2010, finding the back of the net five times in 2021. More than a mere poacher, he is a fox the box that relies on solid service, working to find space in the final third and waiting for the opportunity to separate from defenders. Despite only standing 5’11”, his heading ability is dangerous from the run of play and set pieces.
This could be the most important match of the Octagonal, ultimately determining an automatic qualifying spot for Qatar. The USMNT has the clear advantage in talent, but Panama already proved more than capable of being up to the challenge. If the visitors can maintain a compact box and keep the score low, there is the possibility of finding a goal off the counter to secure three points.
The match is scheduled Sunday, March 27th at 7:00 p.m. Eastern, 4:00 p.m. Pacific. Viewing options include Fox Sports 1, TUDN USA, UniMás, and FUBO TV (free trial).