Gabriel Gomez

Associated Press

Three key battles for USMNT in critical match vs Panama

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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.

Arena reacts to USMNT draw, expects CONCACAF fight to end

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Bruce Arena didn’t enjoy watching Tuesday’s 1-1 draw between the United States and Panama, but he’s not upset with the result.

“The referee didn’t blow his whistle too much, and that’s the way the game looked for 90 minutes,” Arena said.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Arena’s Yanks struggled to find their flow in the draw, ravaged by injuries to their back line. Arena praised his back four for their performance in difficult circumstances on the road with new teammates.

And he’s feeling a lot better than a week ago, when the U.S. had zero points and sat last in the table.

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

“We’re obviously in better shape with four points in two games. We’ve made progress. Every game in qualifying is going to be critical for every team. Everyone’s in it. It’s going to be a battle for the second, third, and fourth spots.”

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

Panama 1-1 USMNT: Ugly, scrappy point for both sides

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The United States will finish the international break in the Hex’s fourth place after a 1-1 draw at Panama in World Cup qualifying on Tuesday.

Clint Dempsey scored off a feed from Christian Pulisic to give the U.S. a brief 1-0 lead, and Gabriel Gomez leveled the score before halftime.

The Americans’ next World Cup qualifier is June 8 against Trinidad and Tobago before a June 11 road trip to Azteca to face Mexico.

[ MORE: Player ratings | 3 things ]

Here’s the Hex table as it stands, with the U.S. on pace for a playoff spot against Asia’s playoff winner:

Mexico — 10 points
Costa Rica — 7 points
Panama — 5 points
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USMNT — 4 points
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Honduras — 4 points
Trinidad and Tobago — 3 points

[ WATCH: Full match replay (Spanish) ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening quarter-hour (and never pulled a single card).

Felipe Baloy flashed a header over the cross bar off a 16th minute corner kick as he lost Jozy Altidore and nodded back across goal. It was a bit of set piece foreshadowing, as Arena has yet to fix a long-held USMNT problem.

Then Christian Pulisic was fired up when Luis Tejada shoved him to the turf in the 20th minute.

The next notable move was defensive. Tim Ream bailed out Jorge Villafana, who wasn’t as composed and smart as his Friday versus Panama, sliding to divert Armando Cooper’s cross for a corner kick.

Jermaine Jones cued up Pulisic moments later, but the youngster had to wait for a bounding ball to settle before Panama conceded a corner. That opportunity was wasted by an overly aggressive Gonzalez, who was called for a foul before the ball arrived in the 18.

Howard saw his first danger and averted it when Alberto Quintero shook Zusi to rip a shot on frame. It was 0-0 after 32 minutes.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon Donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.

The second half began with more chunky play until Villafana blazed down the left wing on an overlapping run to cross for Pulisic, whose shot was forced out for a corner which led to nothing.

Dempsey then turned a Michael Bradley free kick to a waiting Jaime Penedo as the Yanks started to refind their flow.

Panama found a doorstep chance when Torres nodded down for Tejada, but Howard made an exceptional nether regions “leg” save to keep it 1-1.

Arena introduced Alejandro Bedoya for Darlington Nagbe with 20 minutes to play, a move that was a testament to the physical nature of the game.

Fittingly, it was creative work from Pulisic that helped the U.S. win a corner kick soon after, though Penedo claimed the offering.

More chances came Panama’s way, as the U.S. spent much of the late stages desperately clearing loose balls. On another night, with better finishing from Tejada, the Yanks would’ve been sunk.

USMNT AT HALF: Dempsey, Gomez trade goals in chippy first half

AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco
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Christian Pulisic and Clint Dempsey combined for another goal, and the USMNT leads Panama 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier Tuesday in Panama City.

A physical, chippy first half didn’t see many clear cut chances and was 0-0 after 38. minutes.

[ STREAM: Live on Telemundo Deportes ]

The first 10 minutes were a bit frenetic, with the U.S. focused on adventurous first touch passes when it managed to earn the ball from Panama.

That feel wasn’t aided by the officiating, as Cesar Ramos was inconsistent in a very physical opening half-hour.

Then, the breakthrough. Dempsey moved to within a goal of Landon donovan’s all-time mark thanks to Pulisic, who cooked Felipe Baloy and held off Roman Torres before laying off to the veteran. 1-0, 39′.

The lead lasted all of three minutes, as Gomez pounced on a loose ball with the Yanks’ back line at sixes and sevens off a long throw-in. Gomez turned off Jermaine Jones and lost Villafana to bury his chance behind Howard. 1-1, 44′.