The United States men’s national team opened its two-match tour of Europe with a scoreless draw Thursday against Wales. For the second leg, Gregg Berhalter’s side heads to Austria’s Stadion Wiener Neustadt to take on regional rival Panama. The match promises to be a back-and-forth affair as both countries have been pushing for a dynamic attacking style.
Panama is coming off an appearance in the 2018 World Cup, the first in federation history. However, since the tournament, FEPAFUT has blown through three different managers. Américo Gallego was let go in April, reportedly “due to the economic impact derived from the coronavirus crisis.”
Panama is now led by former Leeds United manager Thomas Christiansen. The 47-year-old was appointed to the role this past July. In October, Los Canaleros notched two victories over Costa Rica but dropped a tight 1-0 decision to Japan on Friday. Local media described last month’s performances as “encouraging” as well as “fierce, daring, and good-thinking.” The new manager is content “but not satisfied” with his team after pushing and challenging much higher ranked opponents.
Christiansen called in an evolving 23-player roster for the friendlies. The squad is representative of a country in rebuild mode, with several veterans declining due to the pandemic and a desire to focus on their clubs. It appears to be a somewhat uncomfortable transition caught between the remaining aging figures from a golden generation and younger players only now receiving any opportunity for a breakthrough:
GOALKEEPERS (3): Luis Mejía (Club Nacional), Marcos Allen (Atlético Sanluqueño CF), Orlando Mosquera (Boluspor)
DEFENDERS (7): Michael Amir Murillo (RSC Anderlecht), Francisco Palacios (San Francisco FC), Fidel Escobar (AD Alcorcón), Andrés Andrade (LASK), Óscar Linton (Sliema Wanderers FC), Harold Cummings (Unión Española), Alejandro Yearwood (Árabe Unido)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Édgar Bárcenas (Girona FC), Adalberto Carrasquilla (FC Cartagena), César Yanis (Costa del Este), Armando Cooper (Hapoel Tel Aviv FC), Omar Browne (CAI La Chorrera), Víctor Griffith (AD Santos Guápiles), Abdiel Ayarza (CS Cienciano), Juan David Tejada (Tampa Bay Rowdies)
FORWARDS (5): Jorman Aguilar (AD San Carlos), José Fajardo (CAI La Chorrera), Gabriel Torres (Independiente del Valle), Eduardo Guerrero (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Abdiel Arroyo (Maccabi Petah Tikva)
As evidence of a less than full strength squad, Panama will be without its captain, Román Torres, who has been a constant presence with his national team for over a decade. Star midfielder Alberto Quintero chose to remain in Peru with Universitario. Defensive midfielder Anibal Godoy was also scratched from the roster after a thigh injury.
This is Christiansen’s first time working with many of the players in this group. The Austrian camp potentially represents the only opportunity to train before World Cup qualifying begins in March.
The Danish-Spanish manager prefers a 4-2-3-1 formation but has demonstrated flexibility toward a more attacking 4-3-3. On short rest and in a low-stakes environment, Panama will likely rotate several players following the match against Japan:
Starting goalkeeper Luis Mejia received a red card in the previous fixture. Based on the FIFA disciplinary code, he should not appear in the second friendly. The manager has two interesting younger options on the depth chart. Orlando Mosquera has been starting for Turkish first division side Boluspor and earned his first cap on Friday. He made several composed saves in a brief appearance. Third-string Marcos Allen, currently on loan in Spain, is considered an up-and-coming prospect at 21 years old.
The back line is the strongest component of this Panama roster. Star Anderlecht right back Amir Murillo is a dynamic attacker and reportedly close to a transfer to the Premier League or La Liga. However, after 90 minutes against Japan, he might be sent to the bench in favor of Francisco Palacios. Due to the presence of a mere three center backs on the roster, Harold Cummings will likely start again, this time pairing with Fidel Escobar. The latter, a lockdown defender, played 90 minutes in all three matches at the 2018 World Cup. Left back Alejandro Yearwood started in both of last month’s friendlies against Costa Rica.
Christensen prefers to deploy two defensive midfielders, but has shown a willingness to insert a more advanced player in one of the spots. Abdiel Ayarza and 19-year-old Victor Griffith have paired well together and will be tasked with stopping the American onslaught. Both have a tendency venture into the opposing third, which, while fruitful, can leave too much space available for opponents to exploit.
The three advanced players will be the subject of a similar philosophical debate. Considering this friendly could turn into a vertical battle, Panama might use the attack-minded trio of Jorman Aguilar, familiar winger-center midfielder Armando Cooper, and Omar Browne in more aggressive roles to push the tempo and create chaos. Édgar Bárcenas and Eduardo Guerrero could also feature, especially if the match becomes more open in the second half.
There are several options at striker. Veteran Gabriel Torres is the regular starter at the top of the formation. While not quite prolific, the Independiente del Valle attacker finds pockets of space and can be devastatingly accurate with long-range efforts. Another option is Abdiel Arroyo, a fan favorite who received a late call-up to camp and has earned 48 caps. The wild card is domestic-based José Fajardo, to whom Christiansen has been partial. The 27-year-old is an advantageous poacher, carving out space in the box and pouncing on loose balls.
The younger American squad could struggle against this opponent. Panama preys on defensive errors and quickly transitions into the attack after forcing turnovers. Players will shoot from distance with alarming accuracy, which forces out defenders and in turn opens up space behind the back line. Set pieces are also dangerous, with several ball-winners on the roster capable of providing a challenge on every corner and free kick.
Despite Panama’s attacking prowess, this is an expected victory for the United States. In the past three matches, Los Canaleros displayed an inability to stop opponents from traversing through the midfield. As is common at the international level, individual over-pursuit of the ball and rash, frequent runs into the final third can have diminishing returns, serving more to disrupt a disorganized team’s already fragile structure and leaving the back line free to be overrun. Against an opponent prone to energetic play, the dynamic American front line should have plenty of scoring opportunities, particularly on the counterattack.
Panama has beaten the United States once in 21 fixtures, the lone victory coming in the group stage of the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup. Leading into World Cup qualifying, both countries are in search of a fresh start, heading all the way to Europe to find it. Perhaps their travel will not be in vain.
The match is scheduled for Monday, November 16th at 2:45 p.m. Viewing options include Fox Sports 1, TUDN USA, UniMás, and Fubo TV (free trial).