SEATTLE, Wash. – The rhetoric surrounding Jurgen Klinsmann’s time with the U.S. men’s national team has always cast the coach’s tenure as a process, one that would require the program to regroup and reset before moving forward. Two weeks ago, as Belgium was slicing through the team in a Cleveland friendly, that process appeared to be sputtering, but after wins against Germany and Jamaica, confidence is high ahead of the team’s latest challenge – Tuesday’s World Cup Qualifier against Panama.
“We need to confirm what we’ve built over the last couple of games,” was Klinsmann’s assessment as the team arrived in Seattle, site of Tuesday’s match. After their 2-1 win in Kingston, the U.S. sit second in “The Hex” – the six-team final round of CONCACAF’s World Cup qualifying tournament. With three teams advancing directly to Brazil 2014, the U.S. will take a big step to a seventh-straight World Cup with a win over Panama.
“We want to get three points on Tuesday night, badly,” Klinsmann said. “It’s a must-win. Every home game is a must-win. We know that.”
With the qualifying tournament just short of its half-way mark, the game’s far from a must-win, but with the well-established maxim of ‘win all your home games’ entrenched in CONCACAF lore, you wouldn’t expect a coach of one of the region’s favorites to say anything less. And while the math may not support Klinsmann’s urgency, given the progress the U.S. has made over the last two weeks, anything but full points would be a major setback. Against a team that’s never reached a World Cup, a draw could be a step back.
Panama’s chances of getting that result took were dealt a severe blow this weekend when Blas Perez was ruled out of Tuesday’s match. The veteran FC Dallas striker and Panama’s most dangerous goal-scoring threat, Perez was ruled out with gastrointestinal problems. The 32-year-old’s absence will make life easier on defenders Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler, who now will focus their attentions on Luis Tejada and Rolando Blackburn.
There are, however, other points of worry in the Panamanian team. In captain Felipe Baloy, the Canaleros have a defender capable of starting for any team in the region, his physicality capable of neutralizing even an in-form Jozy Altidore. In the middle, former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gomez has always been a force for country, even if he failed to have a significant impact in Major League Soccer. He’ll be a major focal point for Michael Bradley.
Even with those talents, Panama’s challenges down to a coaching truism. If Klinsmann’s team plays to their potential – if the team that faced Jamaica and Germany boarded the charter to Seattle – the United States will win. It will probably be difficult, as most U.S. games are, and there may be moments where a Brad Evans-esque player will have to unexpectedly step up, but the U.S. is beyond doubting their capabilities to do so.
The bigger question is how many of those of those capabilities will be at Klinsmann’s disposal. Jermaine Jones, the much-maligned midfield hard man whose become one of Klinsmann’s obligatory starters, is out while recovering from a concussion. Graham Zusi, so crucial in providing service from the right for Altidore’s recent goals, was cautioned in Kingston, leaving him suspended with after accumulating too many yellow cards.
The extent to which Klinsmann’s replacements click will dictate how easy the U.S. has it against Panama. In the middle, Stoke City’s Geoff Cameron is most likely to take Jermaine Jones’s mantle, his utility man’s ability to play central defense, right back, and midfield focused in support of Bradley. In place of Zusi, the situation is more nebulous, with Eddie Johnson, Joe Corona, and Brad Davis all potentially starting against Panama.
The biggest names, however, are there. Clint Dempsey will wear the armband. Tim Howard will protect the net. Jozy Altidore will be chasing goals, while Omar Gonzalez looks to continue his ascent in defense. With nine of eleven starters returning from the Jamaica match – and with Panama missing their leading scorer – there’s little appetite to accept excuses.
If the States win, they could very well sit top of the group through five rounds, the Hex-leading Costa Ricans facing a tough task in Mexico City. Any other result, and the States will be examining at themselves instead of the standings.