Currently atop the CONCACAF qualifying standings, Gregg Berhalter’s squad will try to ride the momentum from last week’s victory when they visit Panama on Sunday night.
18 year-old phenom striker Ricardo Pepi was the star in the team’s shut-out win over Jamaica on Thursday night, scoring both goals to send his team to first place in the final round of qualification for the trip to Qatar next winter.
This was the team’s second straight victory stretching back to the last round of games in September, and gives them a run of four undefeated so far to open qualification, albeit with the hardest tests still to come.
Sunday’s visit to Panama might not be the most daunting matchup on paper – the hosts have never beaten the Americans in a total of eight attempts in World Cup qualification – however the challenge for Berhalter will be to utilize the somewhat limited tools at his disposal to come out with a victory, and keep the team in the driver’s seat.
To their credit, Panama has yet to lose at home in their quest to reach Qatar, holding the other two CONCACAF powerhouses of Mexico and Costa Rica to difficult draws. They lost a tight 1-0 contest in Honduras on Thursday night, leaving them in fourth place in the standings.
Berhalter will have some some tough decisions to make in choosing which members of his squad will be on the field when the starting whistle blows at the Estadio Rommel Fernández at 6pm Eastern time on Sunday evening. In addition to the missing stars who were unable for this round of qualifying, two starters from the last game – Antonee Robinson and Weston McKennie – are skipping the trip to Panama City along with backup keeper Zack Steffen.
The Juventus midfielder McKennie has experienced some muscle soreness and is being left behind as a precaution, while the England-based Robinson and Steffen are out due to what the team described as quarantine restrictions.
Additionally, Berhalter will have to think carefully about how to utilize midfield enforcer Tyler Adams and wide defender DeAndre Yedlin on the short-term, with both players one yellow card away from a one-game suspension, and tough home matchups against Costa Rica and Mexico awaiting in the next two games.
Both are primed to play major roles against Panama, with Adams the presumable team captain and most important cog in the midfield due to McKennie’s absence, and Yedlin potentially moved into a starting role in the defense in place of the missing Robinson.
Fortunately, Sergiño Dest will be available to start on either the left or right of the back line; the defender left Thursday’s game in the final stages due to a muscle cramp, however the team confirmed that it was a precautionary measure and will not impact his ability to play on Sunday.
Perhaps with an eye towards Sunday’s game, Pepi was removed several minutes after his second goal sealed the win against Jamaica, and the FC Dallas player will almost assuredly get the starting nod in Panama.
The question is whether Berhalter continues to run with a 4-3-3 lineup that suited the attack so well in the previous game, pairing Pepi alongside the on-fire Brenden Aaronson and another attacker, or opt for a more robust four-man midfield, which would likely see Pepi paired with a more natural strike partner like Tim Weah or Matthew Hoppe.
A win would all but assure that the USA remains in a commanding first-place position as the final round passes the one-third mark, due to their greatly superior goal differential compared to second-place Mexico. However even a draw would potentially open the door for their southern and northern neighbors to climb, with Mexico and Canada facing very winnable opponents in Honduras and Jamaica, respectively.