United States will be tested right away in Gold Cup opener against Panama
Throughout its Gold Cup history, the U.S. has treated the group stage as a formality on the way to bigger matches. All told, the Americans have gone 30-1-3 since the tournament was revamped in 1991.
On Saturday, the latest quest will begin in Nashville, Tennessee, against Panama, an opponent that has historically done plenty to push the Americans to their absolute limit, and on occasion, beyond.
That lone Gold Cup group-stage defeat? That was thanks to Los Canaleros in 2011. There have been other close matches later in the tournament as well: The U.S. prevailed over Panama in fiercely contested finals in 2005 and 2013. And two years ago, Panama claimed third place in the tournament at the Americans' expense, prevailing in a penalty shootout.
Most recently, the teams played to a 1-1 tie in a March World Cup qualifier in Panama City. Granted, for Panama nothing will make up for the U.S. team's dramatic 3-2 win that eliminated it from qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. But the U.S. is not taking anything for granted.
"Panama is an extremely tough opponent, especially right out of the gate," said defender Matt Besler. "We know it's going to be a tough game. We seem to have played them a lot in recent years, and every single game has been different. But they've all been tough, physical battles, and that's what we expect again on Saturday."
In keeping with its steady rise within CONCACAF over the past decade-plus, Panama has had considerable success against other opponents as well and has reached at least the semifinals in the past three Gold Cups.
Duplicating that effort will be difficult this time due to a short-handed roster, but it's in the name of a bigger cause. Panama is currently fourth in the final round of World Cup qualifying, so manager Hernan Dario Gomez will look at some younger players and leave some of his more experienced performers, including goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, captain Felipe Baloy and defender Roman Torres, at home.
That isn't to say that the Gold Cup roster lacks experience. San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Anibal Godoy, Toronto FC midfielder Armando Cooper and Atletico Bucaramanga midfielder Gabriel Gomez all have in excess of 58 caps. However, missing at the moment is someone who can find the net; Panama has scored just four times in its past six qualifying games.
Gabriel Torres, formerly of the Colorado Rapids, will be expected to shoulder most of the scoring load, but the likes of Abdiel Arroyo and Ricardo Clarke will gain some experience and give Gomez some additional options when World Cup qualifying matches resume in September.
U.S. manager Bruce Arena has a similar goal -- namely to provide some additional experience for some fringe players. The loss of Kenny Saief to a groin injury counts as a setback if only because it's not often that a player with UEFA Champions League experience falls into the U.S. team's lap.
"Kenny came here with a little bit of an injury and wasn't able to overcome it," Arena told reporters Thursday. "It's best that he goes back to his club, gets healthy and puts himself in position for future call-ups."
In a group that also includes Martinique and Nicaragua, combined with a compressed schedule of three games in eight days, the U.S. can afford to go deep into its 23-man squad. But with the toughest opponent coming first, Arena will likely go with the group that took the field against Ghana in a 2-1 friendly win last Saturday.
If that's the case, the toughness and experience present in Panama's midfield represents another test for the Americans' central trio of Dax McCarty, Kellyn Acosta and Joe Corona. The three showed well against Ghana, providing almost perfect balance between defense and attack.
McCarty was the player usually sitting deep, Acosta shuttled between attack and defense, while Corona played higher in a bid to provide support for lone striker Dom Dwyer. Arena was especially impressed by McCarty, whom he thought was man of the match.
"When I was in MLS, I always tried to get him in trades, just never successful at it," Arena said. "I just think he's a really good player, a really good team player, a good experienced player at this point in his career, a good communicator on the field. [He's] very respected by his teammates and knows how to do his job. I think that's critically important."
So will be the play of the U.S. back line, which, like it did against Ghana, must contend with a Panama team that can attack at speed.
"They're a dangerous team," defender Graham Zusi said. "They counter pretty well and their set pieces are dangerous as well. This is a game that we're going to have to be locked in for a full 90 minutes. I think if we do that, we'll get the result we want."
And get the Gold Cup off to a perfect start.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.