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Smokin' in Panama

(PANAMA CITY, Panama) - What a difference 10 months can make.

During last year's semi-final round of regional World Cup qualification play, the United States national team went through a spell of inconsistent performances, especially when it came to a pair of away games to Jamaica and Panama.

But for the grace of last-gasp goals in each of those fixtures, including a fortuitous Cobi Jones strike deep into stoppage time in Panama, the U.S. was able to salvage a pair of draws on the road, but it wasn't until a month later that the team finally began to get on track as it took impressive victories in return encounters against El Salvador and Panama as it reserved a place in the six-nation final round of qualifying play.

Heading into this Wednesday's match, the U.S. team was wary of the Panamanians who were not only teetering on the brink of mathematical elimination and desperate for victory, but certainly buoyed by the fact the last time the U.S. came to town in September, the hosts almost sent them home empty-handed.

The mantra of the U.S. team as it faced the challenging two-games-in-five-days schedule was to at least take four points - beating Costa Rica at home and taking a draw in Panama City - but truly wanted the maximum six points to effectively widen the gap between themselves and the strugglers in the group, while moving that much closer to an unprecedented fifth straight World Cup finals.

On the eve of the Panama game, U.S. coach Bruce Arena took a classroom approach to breaking down just what it would take for his team to book passage to the World Cup, since talk is already rife about 'magic numbers' and related formulas to determine how soon the team can join a growing number of countries booking reservations in Germany.

'Usually, we'd like to take five points in the road and win the games at home,' said Arena in a matter-of-fact manner referring to the tie-on-the-road and win-at-home concept long considered gospel in the international game.

'So far, we have three (points on the road), therefore, we're halfway there,' he said. 'So, if the professor asks you what it takes to qualify for the World Cup, then that's the right answer.'

Arena can obviously add three more points to that total on the road following the Americans impressive dismantling of Panama, which opened the game in a feisty manner, but falling on hard luck and lacking the ability to break the U.S., was effectively beaten well before halftime.

Well-taken goals by Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan and Brian McBride in the first 40 minutes - aided by a string of world-class stops by Kasey Keller - paved the way for a 3-0 result as the U.S. hits the midway point of qualifying with 12 points from five games.

Group leaders Mexico (13 points) and the U.S. being shoe-ins to qualify might sound presumptuous, but the fact remains that cellar-dwellers Panama (2) and Guatemala (4) habitually lose points while continually failing to impress on the road, which means third-place Costa Rica (7) is only marginally better and has not proved very proficient away from home either.

After dispatching Costa Rica with a 3-0 victory on June 4, Donovan downplayed the favorable position the U.S. team had put itself in, harkening back to the midway point of qualifying for the 2002 finals.

'We're comfortable with where we are right now,' he said, 'but last time, we had 13 points after five qualifiers and thought we were God's gift to the world. We learned there's a long way to go. It's still early - we have a chance to really, really separate ourselves, but we need a killer instinct.'

The Americans' impressive, yet surprising momentum-laden 4-0-1 qualifying start in 2001 would grind to an abrupt halt thanks to three consecutive losses to open the final five-game stretch, not only putting passage to the finals a bit father away, but put themselves in a position with fewer chances to capture a place in the top three.

The chances of a repeat occurring this time around remains highly unlikely, so baring a complete collapse, a victory against Trinidad and Tobago on Aug. 17 in East Hartford, Conn., coupled with Mexico beating or drawing with Costa Rica at home the same day, followed by a U.S. victory over Mexico on Sept. 3 in Columbus, Ohio, should see the Americans qualify.

Should those equations not work in favor of the U.S., they would be forced to look for maximum points on Sept. 7 in Guatemala City - the first of two away fixtures followed by an Oct. 9 encounter at Costa Rica. Needless to say, the final game of qualifying, a home match to Panama on Oct. 12, should be nothing more than a formality.

Minus a bad 15-minute stretch against Costa Rica, the U.S. team has been in good form since being outclassed in Mexico City by a 2-1 scoreline on March 27. It brushed aside a feeble Guatemalan side and followed that performance by pretty much mastering Costa Rica and Panama by a combined as it scored eight goals without conceding any during the three-game spell.

It's still early - we have a chance to really, really separate ourselves, but we need a killer instinct.
Landon Donovan

The most recent two outings have witnessed Arena tweaking the line-up as he has opted for a decidedly more attack-minded combination in his starting 11. The U.S. got the better of Costa Rica with a 3-4-3 formation while Panama was brushed aside by a high-pressure, 4-3-2-1 arrangement spearheaded by lone forward Brian McBride with Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley pushed into a more freewheeling role linking a three-man midfield with target forward McBride.

The depth of the team cannot go unnoticed as the absence of Claudio Reyna, Eddie Lewis, Pablo Mastroeni and Eddie Johnson certainly forced Arena's hand when it came to putting together line-ups, but hardly left anyone lamenting the unavailability of a handful of players.

Granted the competition has hardly pushed the U.S. to its limits the past two months, and up-coming games will fall far below the level of play in Germany 2006, but it is obvious that this U.S. team, no matter who is on the field, cannot afford to play in the tentative fashion it did against Mexico or in last month's friendly with England.

A number of regular players will not be participating in next month's CONCACAF Gold Cup where the U.S. is grouped with Canada, Cuba and Costa Rica. Therefore, Arena will be giving more time to those who may only be getting scant time as reserves or tapping Major League Soccer to give call-ups to those who may rate only as fringe or pool players.

Arena said this week that the Gold Cup will be a setting to get the vastly talented, yet extremely injury-prone John O'Brien some badly needed time on the field as well as giving a game to Marcus Hahnemann who has become Keller's backup throughout the final round of qualifying.

There will no doubt be some interesting possibilities based on who is called into camp - U.S. Soccer has not yet submitted requests to MLS teams for players for the Gold Cup, but this could be the last real chance this year for some to impress in hopes of being in the mix when qualifying play resumes in August.

High fives and relief all round after that early Bocanegra strike.
High fives and relief all round after that early Bocanegra strike.

One thing is clear, no matter who is in this team or who the opponent is, the U.S. has proven that success will only come when it takes chances, pushes the attack and doesn't get hung-up with uncertainty when a game is underway. Most of all, it will have to play as a team and not rely on a handful of players to deliver the goods.

More than anyone, Keller has shown what sheer determination mixed with first-class skill can do, in the long and short run for it was also 10 months ago that he was the odd man out at Tottenham Hotspur, the club where he had been No. 1 for nearly two years.

A transfer to Borussia Moenchengladbach now has him established in the German side, but also playing the best of his 15-year career for club or country. Keller leaves Panama City for a deserved break in the Hawaiian Islands, but in the back of his mind, being at a fourth World Cup has got to be giving him a bit of incentive.

In the post-game chaos at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Keller succinctly summed it up when asked about the result against Panama.

'This was a team effort,' he said. 'You have to give credit to everybody. We did the job we needed to do. We wanted to get the six points from the two games, so this puts us in great position (to qualify). Chris Cowles is a freelance writer who covers the U.S. national team for ESPN