The United States faces a critical World Cup qualifier on Friday, one that will likely determine their fate next summer.
Three points is the only result which will allow US fans and players to breathe. Anything else, and help is required to secure qualification. So how will the United States make the journey to victory?
[ MORE: Full preview for USA vs. Panama ]
Here are three key battles the US will need to focus on as they look to beat Panama on home soil.
1) US attack finding space vs. Panama defense
There’s no question that Panama will look to defend first. Even a draw in this match is a positive result for the visiting side as they sit a point above the United States as it stands. With that in mind, the US attack will need to take its chances and take them well. They’ll only get so many opportunities up front, and can’t afford to miss.
Panama captain Ramon Torres anchors their defense, and between he and center-back partner Fidel Escobar, the two have a wealth of experience playing all across the CONCACAF region. For the United States to find success up front, they’ll need to prod the center-back pairing to falling out of position with movement on and off the back line. Whoever starts up front will need to help off the ball just as much as on the ball.
2) US full-backs against Panama full-backs
The United States’ weakest position is at full-back, and Bruce Arena made an extremely controversial call by leaving Fabian Johnson off the roster. It may work out and it may not, but the head man will have to own it either way. Without Johnson, it means the likely starters will be DeAndre Yedlin on the right and Jorge Villafana on the left, with Graham Zusi and Demarcus Beasley possibly in the mix. It will be interesting to see how often they are instructed to bomb forward with the pressure US puts on the Panama defense, but given how prone the two are to getting forward, they’ll need to remain focused on the possibility of a counter.
Yedlin has improved vastly on his defensive abilities while with Newcastle, a massive benefit to the United States, but he and Villafana will need to win the battle with the full-backs on their side, or the US will struggle to find victory.
3) Michael Bradley vs. Anibal Godoy and Gabriel Gomez
Depending on the formation Bruce Arena chooses to deploy, Michael Bradley could have varying roles, but with the United States likely looking to take the initiative at home in a must-win match, he will likely be in a midfield pivot with multiple roles. He will need to be stout in all roles, because they’ll all be equally important to secure victory.
Firstly, Bradley will likely be man-marked by Anibal Godoy in the attacking half, with the Panama defensive midfielder charged with holding firm in front of his back line. He will look to keep Bradley from feeding the attack, and it will be on the US engine to distribute effectively.
On the other end, Bradley will need to be on his heels. Panama is effective on the counter-attack, and Gabriel Gomez will be at the forefront of any push up the field. Gomez isn’t a creative force, but on the counter could be the controller up the middle. He will look to feed the former Colorado Rapids striker, who is in good form with the national team. It will be on Bradley to not let things get out of control on the other end when the US pushed forward hard.