For the U.S. national team the scenario is very clear.
If they win their final two games of CONCACAF qualifying then they will be heading to the 2018 World Cup. But we all know it’s never that easy.
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The biggest test for Bruce Arena’s side is facing Panama at Orlando City Stadium on Friday. Panama has nothing to lose. They sit in the third and final automatic spot in World Cup qualifying heading into the final two games in the Hexagonal and their final game is at home to Costa Rica who have all but qualified for the World Cup.
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For the Panamanians a win against the U.S. would seal their first-ever appearance at a World Cup finals and even a point wouldn’t be bad but they’d then have to beat Costa Rica at home in their final qualifier. This game on Friday is their World Cup final and there is very little pressure on them with the home fans expecting the U.S. to win comfortably against a team ranked 60th in the world.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at three keys for the USMNT as they look to jump ahead of Panama with a win and potentially go into their final Hex game at Trinidad & Tobago needing just a draw to qualify for the World Cup.
CENTER BACK PAIRINGS
Don’t be surprised if Arena mixes things up, once again, at center back. With Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler steady away at Honduras (despite one slip up between Graham Zusi at right back and Gonzalez at center back for the goal) they could well start against Panama.
Tim Ream and Geoff Cameron are no doubt the better individual defenders but it seems like Arena has decided against them as a pairing after the defeat to Costa Rica when the partnership struggled. At center back and in central midfield, having a strong understanding of the player alongside you is key and due to injuries and a lack of form this center back pairings have taken a huge hit in recent months for the U.S. In fact, the U.S. has kept just two clean sheets in their eight games in the Hex so far
Cameron and John Brooks should be the USMNT’s first-choice center backs but with Brooks out, Arena may decide to go with Gonzalez and Besler, or maybe even throw Ream back in. Simply put: Arena’s decision on who to play at center back will be crucial, especially with veteran forwards Blas Perez and Luis Tejada eager for World Cup qualification to cap their long, and glittering, Panama careers. Gabriel Torres shold cause the U.S. defense plenty of problems too.
HELPING OUT BRADLEY
Sorting out the midfield around Michael Bradley is crucial too. FC Dallas youngster Kellyn Acosta has been preferred alongside him in recent games, and they’ve proved a solid partnership, but for an encounter like this you’d think a little more experience would be key in front of Bradley and perhaps more attacking options will prevail. I still love watching video of the midfield display Bradley and Cameron put on together against Panama in a big World Cup qualifying win in Seattle back in 2013 in the Hex, but does playing two holding midfielders make sense in a game the U.S. simply has to win? Not really.
But still, with Panama likely to hit the U.S. on the counter you have to worry about Bradley being outnumbered on the break when the U.S. turns the ball over.
There’s a real sense that Christian Pulisic will once again operate centrally in midfield and maybe this is the type of game Darlington Nagbe would flourish in as he can keep the ball and allow the U.S. to press higher up the pitch. Pace out wide crushed Honduras in a World Cup qualifying win at home earlier in the Hex and you can expect Arena to follow a similar path for this game. Bradley may well end up as the lone holding midfielder but that role suits him well. That said, he will need a dynamic group in front of him to not only help support the likes of Jozy Altidore and Bobby Wood but also allow him to make any surging runs past them (ahem, the goal at the Azteca) into the final third.
EXPERIENCE IS KEY
With Tim Howard, Clint Dempsey, Cameron, Besler, Alejandro Bedoya, DaMarcus Beasley, Altidore and Bradley all veterans at this point, it would be intriguing to see Arena start with the vast majority of them from the start.
That group has delivered in tense situations over the past two World Cup cycles to get out of the Group of Death at the 2014 World Cup and then reach the semifinals of the Copa America Centernario. The big question is: does Arena go for experience or youth? I’d say a smattering of both and that could be a mistake.
In situations like this I say the more experience the better. Panama have five players with over 100 international caps and most will play a pivotal role on Friday. The U.S. also have five players with over 100 caps but only three may seem like guaranteed starters in Howard, Bradley and Altidore.
Dempsey, Bedoya, Cameron and Beasley should all seriously be considered due to their past of getting the U.S. over the line when they’ve needed it most. Although the exciting young talents of Paul Arriola, Nagbe and Acosta are clearly capable of performing at this level, having the nous to overcome a Panama side who will roll out every trick in the book to try and qualify for their first-ever World Cup finals is something they lack.