PANAMA CITY, Panama -- When U.S. National Team assistant coach Curt Onalfo visited Panama back in July on a scouting trip, he didn't know what he was going to encounter.
He had seen the Reds play on tape, so he wasn't too surprised by their play in a 1-1 draw with Guatemala at the time. He was also pleasantly surprised to see that the field inside Estadio Rommel Fernandez was in relatively good shape, and that the grounds weren't necessarily intimate, being that a track provides plenty of buffer between the players and the fans.
However, once the match began and Onalfo looked around at his surroundings, he couldn't believe his eyes. Only 2,000 or so fans were supporting the home side. And that was with a World Cup qualifying match against El Salvador just three weeks away.
That will hardly be the case on Wednesday night, though, when Panama hosts the U.S. National Team in a semifinal round of World Cup qualifying match in a game that will arguably be the country's biggest match to date.
To make things even more intriguing, the Panamanians are coming off their biggest victory in the side's history, after posting a 2-1 upset against Jamaica on Saturday.
"They just got three points on the road," said Onalfo. "And they are in a good position in the group (tied with El Salvador for second-place with three points each), so they'll be sky-high for this one."
As they should.
After the U.S. held serve and beat El Salvador 2-0 in Foxboro, Mass., on Saturday, the Americans are sitting at the top of the group with four points in two matches. They also remain as the favorite to not only be one of the two countries to advance from Group 1 to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying next year, but to win the group outright.
But as U.S. manager Bruce Arena said on Wednesday, now is not the time to focus on how the group will play out.
"It's too early for anyone to make sense of it," he said. "In these things you don't know a thing until the fourth or fifth game."
That's especially true for this match. Of all the exotic venues the U.S. side has visited over the years, it has never traveled to Panama, and has only played the Central American nation once. That encounter came in July of 1993 in a Gold Cup match that the U.S. won 2-1, and featured only Cobi Jones from the current 20-player roster that Arena has brought down here.
So, in essence, Wednesday's match represents a bit of a journey into the Great Unknown for the Americans.
|Projected U.S. Starting XI
The U.S. lineup on Wednesday night against Panama is likely to feature the following players:
GK: Kasey Keller
Def.: Greg Vanney
Def.: Eddie Pope
Def.: Carlos Bocanegra
Def.: Frankie Hejduk
Mid: Kerry Zavagnin
Mid: Claudio Reyna
Mid: DaMarcus Beasley
Mid: Landon Donovan
Fwd.: Brian McBride
Fwd.: Conor Casey
The goalkeeper, the back four, and the midfield quartet seem to be set, while the partnership up front remains up in the air. Recent goal-scoring sensation Brian Ching could get the nod up top and be paired with Clint Mathis, as well.
-- Marc Connolly
"It'll be a challenge," said defender Eddie Pope, who has traveled all over the region with the National Team while earning 63 caps over the past nine years. "Luckily, we haven't had any bad results because we know we're going to play a good team. Plus, since it's an environment we've never been in, you can't take anything for granted."
U.S. captain Claudio Reyna agreed.
"Things can go bad in one fixture of games," he said. "You don't win and suddenly the group is turned upside down. This is a really a chance for us to make this group ours. We really want to take this one so we can go into our next games a bit more relaxed."
Arena admitted that this trip represents a "nice change of pace," but he's quick to point out that his side hadn't been to Barbados before beating the island nation 4-0 in late 2000 to move on the final round of qualification for the 2002 World Cup. The team also had never been to Grenada before going there this summer and finishing off a much-improved squad to get out of the first round of qualifying.
Regardless of venue, it's not as though the Yanks are down here to take pictures of the Canal or watch a local baseball game. It's a get-in, get-out philosophy that mirrors the tone of the importance of the game. And make no mistake, despite the fact that Panama has never even come close to qualifying for a World Cup and is not ranked among the top 100 nations in the world, this match is serious business.
Before even taking the team charter from the Bay State on Tuesday morning, the players had already seen tape -- hard-to-find tape, mind you -- on their opponent, and have been briefed on all of Panama's main weapons.
"We told our team that Panama was the better team in El Salvador," said Arena referring to El Salvador's 2-1 victory over Panama back on August 17. "We thought that'd be the harder game than the El Salvador game."
"They outplayed El Salvador and lost," said Onalfo, "then were outplayed in Jamaica and won."
That's the lovely, ever-changing trials and tribulations of World Cup qualifying for you.
Onalfo, who serves as the team's chief scout, said that Panama will play in a similar system that the U.S. employs with four defenders in the back, two holding midfielders, two attackers and two strikers up top.
"They like to send their outside backs forward and whip balls in," he said.
Once on the attack, Panama looks for a pair of forwards -- Julio Cesar Dely Valdes and Roberto Brown -- who have presented problems for each opponent thus far. Valdes is the team's main goal-scoring option, and has found the back of the net on four occasions already during qualifiers. Brown is a bit more athletic and dangerous in the air, utilizing his six-foot frame.
After watching film of the duo, Pope came away impressed.
"They are complete players, definitely," said the MetroStars centerback. "They're fast and athletic, and they take their chances well."
Pope, who said his right hip is fine and is "ready to go", will be relied upon as well as his partner in central defense, Carlos Bocanegra, to keep markers on them at all time, and use their own exceptional height and strength to their advantage.
What will be of main concern to the U.S. side is Panama's No. 10, Julio Medina, who is the lynchpin in the attack.
"He roams wherever he wants," said Frankie Hejduk, who is expected to start at right back. "We have to be aware of where he is at all times because he's tricky and very good at getting good balls behind the defense."
Hejduk believes it'll be of major importance for the U.S. to exploit Panama on counterattacks, especially after one of their outside backs has committed to the attack. Panama's holding midfielders like to stay home, according to Onalfo, but they'll have a lot of ground to cover to defend on the flanks in transition.
"We have to use the situation to our advantage," said the Columbus Crew standout. "They need the three points at home, so they're going to attack. We have to come back at them with numbers, and use the gaps they leave behind. That's when Landon (Donovan) and (DaMarcus) Beasley can exploit that space.
"We know they'll be susceptible to the counter."
It all should make for a much more attractive, exciting game coming off the heels of the El Salvador game, which didn't have any flow or wide-open play.
I expect it'll be more up-and-down," said Arena. "It'll be a more even game than the El Salvador game."
Especially now that Panama has a reason to believe it can be one of the two teams to survive Group 1, the locals are likely to do the opposite of what Onalfo saw some six weeks ago, and give Estadio Rommel Fernandez a taste of what a World Cup qualifier is all about.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: email@example.com