U.S. shakes off ominous signs
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The signs were everywhere, both literally and figuratively.
Lightning was shooting down from the heavens even as the U.S. National Team warmed up just 20 minutes before kicking off against the Panamanians, as though someone was trying to tell them something.
The non-stop rains and standing water in the penalty box the Americans just happened to defend in the first half didn't help either. Nor did the fact that they had switched benches with the home side moments before the anthems were played and the opening whistle was blown.
The real signs -- the cardboard kind -- weren't making it a welcoming environment, either. It's one thing to see a "Yankees Go Home" message, which was located behind the U.S. bench, as that's par for the course for a road World Cup qualifying match. But the sign right next to it had a completely different tone to it"
"Osama Is Here So Lose."
Especially three days before the third anniversary of 9/11.
Of course, such cruel and absurd actions by a few select fans -- the same ones who blew air horns during the playing of "The Star Spangled Banner" -- were the last of Bruce Arena's squad's worries.
The team had its third qualifying match to play against an upstart side that had beaten Jamaica 2-1 only a few days before, and was riding a wave of adrenaline into its beloved Estadio Rommel Fernandez to play the Americans on Wednesday night.
In a facility that was, at best, a glorified high school football stadium that featured poor lighting, cement bleachers, and an omnipresent scent of, well, bad cheese, there was Home-Field Advantage written all over it.
That's why when the U.S. left the soaked grounds of the stadium with one point after getting a 1-1 tie due to the goal Cobi Jones scored in the 92nd minute, there was a reason they looked pleased.
"We're in the best scenario we could be in without a win on the road," said goalkeeper Kasey Keller, commenting on the U.S. side's first-place standing (1-0-2, five points) in Group 1 of semifinal round World Cup qualifying. "When you tie away, you stop the home team from getting two more points."
Forget that Panama has never qualified for a World Cup or has even been close enough to dream about. Forget also that the Reds aren't ranked in the top 100 in the world. Playing the Panamanians still represented a road game in the CONCACAF region, which is something that's been proven can't be taken for granted.
The Americans have traditionally struggled when playing anywhere in Central America, compiling a 3-5-6 record coming into Wednesday's match.
Their last triumph came in March of 2001 when a stunning, late-game 22-yard free kick by Clint Mathis gave the U.S. a 2-1 victory in Honduras during the final round of qualifying for the 2002 World Cup.
So a tie on the road in a nation that it had never traveled to before is reason for the relief that appeared on the faces of the U.S. players at the end of the match.
"You draw your games away, you win at home, and you qualify for the World Cup easily," said Keller. "So far we're on schedule."
Arena said much of the same, noting that it's hard to judge this Panama team on its strong performance on Wednesday because of the situation.
"Obviously, the team that plays at home has a big advantage," he said. "I think you'll see that this game may look a little bit different in Washington, D.C."
For a team like Panama that has speed and plays with aggression, it's able to feed off its supporters and perform at a level much higher than it would even at a neutral field. The problem is, the venues during qualifying that appear more neutral than any are in the United States. Outside of that, any away match presents a headache.
"Everywhere you go in CONCACAF on the road in Central America is a tough environment," said Arena.
Arena didn't put the Panamanian venue in the same echelon as the one that his side will encounter in San Salvador, El Salvador on October 10.
Actually, he seemed to warmly compare Estadio Rommel Fernandez to the stadiums the U.S. visited in Mazatenango, Guatemala, and in Poland. Instead, he said that the rainy conditions were more of a factor than anything, as it left the field very slick, which made it hard to keep the ball moving on the ground once possession was gained.
What Arena did seem satisfied with is the situation his team is now in, as it's now played the team's arguably two toughest opponents from this round on the road and still leads the group.
In addition, not one player carrying yellow card accumulation into the Panama match -- including Bobby Convey, who made the trip but did not dress as part of the 18-man roster -- got carded.
"I have every player eligible for games four and five -- well, four anyway -- which was a big part of our focus today," he said. "We didn't want to lose any players for Game Four, so I think that was accomplished. And now we simply have to take advantage of having a couple of home games as we finish out this round."
Having two of its last three matches at home while both Jamaica (1-1-1, four points) and Panama (1-1-1, four points) must play twice on the road and only once at home should be a huge factor.
Plus, Jamaica's 3-0 victory over El Salvador (1-2, three points) on Wednesday night tightens the group up a bit more, since all four countries now have one win under their belts.
Though all the U.S. needs to do is finish in the top two spots, captain Claudio Reyna doesn't want to go into the remaining matches with that mindset.
"The goal is not to just get through each group of qualifying," said Reyna. "It's to win the group, and win comfortably and show the next hexagonal round that we are strong."
Reyna spoke about how the U.S. didn't win its semifinal round group in 2000 after going 3-1-2 and finished in third-place during the final round of qualifying in 2001 to snatch the final CONCACAF berth into the last World Cup.
"Perhaps the challenge to the team now," said Reyna, "is to win all of the groups. We have to get the attitude where we can go and win on the road, regardless of where we are playing."
Osama signs and all.
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org