The United States Men’s National Team is in position to potentially punch their ticket to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar on Sunday when they host Panama in Orlando’s Exploria Stadium.
Coming off of a hard-fought, scoreless draw at Mexico on Thursday night, the team returns to home turf for the last time in this qualifying cycle, and will be looking to wrap up their spot in front of the sold-out crowd, while exorcising a number of demons in the process.
Mathematically, Gregg Berhalter’s squad will secure an automatic qualifying spot with a win, should fourth-place Costa Rica draw or lose at sixth-place El Salvador. A draw will even be enough if the Ticos suffer a defeat.
Yes, after nearly seven months, the finish line is finally within reach.
For better or worse, the team will already know where things stand in that regard when the ball starts rolling in Orlando, with the game in San Salvador kicking off four hours prior.
Beyond the broader implications related to a return to the World Cup after missing out in 2018, anything short of a win against Panama on home turf would simply be a humiliating result. In the 24 meetings between these two teams, the USMNT has won 17 and only lost three, with Panama having never taken even a single point on US soil in World Cup qualifying.
Nevertheless, in terms of recent head-to-head results, Gregg Berhalter’s squad comes into the game having more to prove. In their first meeting of the cycle in Panama City in October, the Americans effectively left a turd in the bed, losing 1-0 in a game that saw Berhalter trot out a somewhat unconventional lineup that couldn’t gain any kind of foothold.
That loss was bookended by victories over Jamaica and Costa Rica in that same window, which somewhat covered up the stench, however the stain still remains, and will only be washed away by a dominant performance on Sunday night.
This game also brings up some painful deja vu from the far more grandiose mess of things the USMNT made in late-2017, where they also hosted Panama in the same stadium in the penultimate game of qualification for Russia. While they came away from that game as 4-0 winners, momentarily giving hope of a successful qualifying run, their follow-up act was a painful moment in history.
Nevertheless, it is an embarrassment for which they can already make amends on Sunday with a win, albeit in this case with a little bit of help necessary from the game a few hours earlier in El Salvador.
While Berhalter’s men will be disappointed to have not taken the win in Mexico City on Thursday, particularly considering they had the most dangerous chances gone to waste, they are not too damaged from the experience in terms of key personnel.
Of the players who started the game, only right back DeAndre Yedlin and winger Tim Weah will be absent on Sunday, as both will have to serve suspensions after picking up their second yellow cards of the qualifying round.
Yedlin’s absence will be more felt by the team; he was already filling in for injured Sergiño Dest, and his own backup, Reggie Cannon, is unable to play after testing positive for Covid. This has forced Berhalter to call upon 13-times capped defender Shaq Moore as the fourth option (whose last appearance was in that embarrassing game in Panama City in October) to make the trip over from Tenerife to Orlando as an emergency addition.
Nevertheless, the coach will still have some tough decisions about whether to keep the rest of his starting lineup in-tact from the game three days prior, or rotate some key positions due to performance, fatigue or a reading of likely tactics from the Panamanians.
Apart from the likely insertion of Moore for Yedlin, it would be a minor surprise to see any other members of the back line, namely Walker Zimmerman, Miles Robinson and Antonee Robinson, rotated out after they did an excellent job to neutralize a talented Mexican attack.
The midfield three of Kellyn Acosta, captain Tyler Adams and Yunus Musah are also all available, although it wouldn’t be a complete surprise to see Luca de la Torre or Gianluca Busio switch in to take the place of Yunus Musah, after the 19 year-old Valencia player was on the field for the full 90 minutes on Thursday.
The front three is where things could get interesting; with Weah suspended and Ricardo Pepi having had another practically invisible outing on Thursday, this opens the door for a major shuffle. Christian Pulisic should still be on the field from the opening whistle, if Berhalter doesn’t want to spark a violent mutiny amongst fans.
However, the two players who take the field alongside the Chelsea attacker are up for grabs, with Berhalter having meticulously avoided giving any clues in his pre-game comments.
“All three forwards are in contention to start the game tomorrow,” Berhalter said on Saturday afternoon in reference to Pepi, Pefok and Jesus Ferreira fighting for the center-forward role. “They all bring different elements that could help the team be successful.”
“Jordan certainly is good on crosses [and] good in the penalty box. It was a difficult night for him in Azteca, there’s no question about that, but players bounce back. [With] Pepi, I talked after the game about his work rate, I thought [it] was outstanding. I thought his defensive pressure was very good.”
“So overall, these guys all put themselves in contention to play again, and we’ll have to make the decision tonight.”
In the third attacking spot of the front-three, most fans are likely clamouring for Giovanni Reyna, especially after he seemed to grab the game by its short-hairs on a couple occasions during his 30 minutes on the field against Mexico.
For their part, Panama have their backs against the wall, and could be eliminated with a loss, also pending the outcome of the earlier Costa Rica game. They do have the entire contingent of players who suited up for their 1-1 home draw against Honduras available for Sunday, however will still be feeling the sting of failing to beat the last-place team in the group, a result which might very well have doomed their chances.
Their primary points of danger come from veterans Rolando Blackburn and Cecilio Waterman, who have combined for seven of Panama’s 15 goals in qualifying.
The game kicks off at 7pm Eastern time in Orlando on Sunday evening.