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Direct from Seattle

U.S. Meets Plucky Panama in A Crucial Hex Match

If the Americans can find a way through a packed-in Panamanian defense, they could find themself at the top of the table on Tuesday, depending on other results. Liviu Bird previews Tuesday's qualifier.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
June 11, 2013
2:42 PM
SEATTLE—When the United States takes the field on Tuesday in a World Cup qualifier against Panama (10 p.m. ET, ESPN), it may be the only team that comes to play.

“When we play at home in qualifying, there’s always that chance that teams come in and are going to be a little bit more geared towards being organized and, defensively, making sure that they’re not giving anything away,” Michael Bradley said before training on Monday.

That’s a diplomatic way of saying Panama could very well bunker in, defend with most of its players behind the ball, and look to strike on the counter-attack. Missing one of its key offensive weapons in Blas Perez won’t help La Marea Roja feel like going forward. (Perez stayed in Panama following his team’s 0-0 tie with Mexico with gastrointestinal problems.)

Even at home on Friday against Mexico, Panama looked content to play for the draw. U.S. players believe they should be able to break Panama down by moving the ball quickly.

“It’s just about keeping possession good and picking and choosing moments when to take risks in the attacking third,” Clint Dempsey said. “They’re a team that’s very difficulty to break down, but if we play the ball quickly, one- and two-touch, and have good movement off the ball, I think that we’ll be fine.”

With Graham Zusi suspended due to yellow-card accumulation and Jermaine Jones out with a concussion, the U.S. will have to change up its personnel from the 2-1 win in Jamaica last week. Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann named Eddie Johnson, Brad Davis, and Edgar Castillo as players who could get a start because of the absences.

But as always, Klinsmann held his cards close to his chest.

“Going through all of those pieces, we have a pretty good idea of how we want to start tomorrow, which I won’t tell you right now,” he said with a small laugh at a press conference on Monday.

Bradley said he would feel comfortable playing next to Geoff Cameron at holding midfield again. Cameron came on for Jones in the 59th minute in Jamaica.

“Obviously, with the national team, he’s only played there 25, 30 minutes, but I thought in a difficult situation, he came on the other night and did a good, solid job because, let’s be honest, coming into a game like that at that point isn’t easy,” Bradley said.

At home in Seattle, the atmosphere should play to the U.S.’s advantage, even if the field surface does not. Players have been critical of the temporary grass field laid over the artificial turf at CenturyLink Field. Ticket sales reached the 36,000 mark as of Monday, still short of the capacity of 42,000 for the match.

In terms of the crowd, the quality may well outweigh the quantity, Bradley said.

“I think anybody by now who pays attention to MLS sees what a special thing they have going here in Seattle,” he said. “Seattle certainly deserves a game, but I think the field, unfortunately, leaves a lot to be desired.”

The pitch could prove to be an equalizing factor for an opportunistic Panamanian team that has tied Costa Rica and Mexico and beaten Honduras in the CONCACAF Hexagonal Round.

“More than anything, it’s just a group of guys that have played together over the course of a lot of years [and] played a lot of games together,” Bradley said. “I think they recognize that this is their chance to qualify for a World Cup. We have to understand their mentality and know what the game is going to mean.”

What it could mean for the U.S. is the opportunity to take sole possession of first place in the final qualifying group, depending on the result between Mexico and Costa Rica—who share that spot with the U.S. right now—earlier on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN).

So is this a must-win game for the United States?

“No, of course not,” Bradley said. “We’re stepping on the field to get three points, and we’ll do everything we can to get three points, but to say that it’s a must win?”

He shook his head.

However, Tuesday marks another opportunity for the U.S. to control of its fate on the road to World Cup 2014. Anything less than a victory—at home, against weaker opposition—would be a step back on that path.

“We need to make sure that we take care of business,” Dempsey said. “Like Jurgen [has] said, in the home games, it’s crucial that we get three points.”

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is also American Soccer Now’s resident tactical expert. Follow him on Twitter.

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