After a dramatic road win, U.S. to face Panama in soccer-mad Seattle
SEATTLE -- U.S. left back DaMarcus Beasley took one look down at the temporary grass surface at CenturyLink Field here on Sunday and answered my question about the quality. "Umm ... it doesn't look great," he said. And he was right. The grass looks a little like some of the yards I mowed during drought-stricken summers in Kansas as a kid. On the edges, where it overlaps the artificial turf field, the appearance is a bit like a cheap toupee.
But Beasley said he's seen worse. "I think it'll play all right," he explained. "It's obviously not the best or the same as regular grass, but I'd 100 percent rather play on this than on [artificial] turf."
Both the U.S. and Panama will have to play on the same field, of course, when they meet here on Tuesday night in the fifth game of the year-long CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal (10 p.m. ET, ESPN, UniMas). The U.S. has a bit more skill on the ball, so the Americans may be affected a little more by the surface, but that's the price you pay for bringing a qualifier to soccer-mad Seattle for the first time. The overwhelmingly pro-U.S. crowd of at least 35,000 will certainly help matters.
So will the absence of Panama's top scoring threat, Blas Pérez, who didn't make the trip due to gastroenteritis. Pérez has been in good form for Panama and FC Dallas, and his likely replacement, Rolando Blackburn, is something of a downgrade.
But the U.S. is missing its own regular starters. Right midfielder Graham Zusi, who has been so effective crossing balls to Jozy Altidore for goals of late, is out on a yellow-card suspension. Meanwhile, central midfielder Jermaine Jones tweeted late Sunday that he will miss Tuesday's game after suffering a concussion in the win against Jamaica on Friday.
Who will replace Zusi and Jones? U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has options. For Jones, he could go with Geoff Cameron (if he wants more bite) or Sacha Kljestan (if he wants more creativity). Cameron is more like Jones in the way he plays, so if I pull out my crystal ball, it'll be Cameron. As for Zusi's fill-in, the most likely scenario in my mind involves Joe Corona coming in on the right, but Klinsmann could also go with Kljestan or Eddie Johnson or shuffle the deck and move Brad Evans from right back or Fabian Johnson from left midfield. (Those moves would open up possibilities for Michael Parkhurst at right back and Brad Davis at left midfield, respectively.)
Anyway, here's my best guess at the lineups:
United States: Tim Howard; Brad Evans, Omar González, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley; Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley; Joe Corona, Clint Dempsey, Fabian Johnson; Jozy Altidore.
Panama: Jaime Penedo; Carlos Rodríguez, Román Torres, Felipe Baloy, Luis Henríquez; Marcos Sánchez, Gabriel Gómez, Amílcar Henríquez, Leonel Parris; Rolando Blackburn, Luis Tejada.
What's at stake in Tuesday's game? Well we've talked before about how you have to win your home games in World Cup qualifying, and that's the case once again for the Americans. There's a real sense of optimism around the team right now after Brad Evans' late game-winner in Jamaica, which increased the possibility that the U.S. could take nine points from the three June qualifiers and enter September's games leading the Hex.
Panama, for its part, has a real chance of qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in its history, especially with the possibility of four CONCACAF teams making it to Brazil. Coach Julio Dely Valdés is more than just the best-dressed manager in CONCACAF; he also is one of the most impressive tacticians, and his Panama teams are physical and hard to play. (Remember the two Gold Cup games vs. the U.S. in 2011, the first of which was won by Panama?) That hard-nosed attitude is embodied by tough center backs Felipe Baloy and Román Torres.
"I think they match us physically, which is tough for us," said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. "We'll try and figure that out. We handled it the last time we played them down in Houston [a 1-0 semifinal win in the '11 Gold Cup]."
A U.S. win at home would start to put some distance between the top teams and the rest in the Hex, which is still tight (with Mexico and Jamaica having played five games to the four played by the rest):
The more revealing standings may be the win-at-home, tie-on-the-road rankings, which reflect the U.S.'s solid road performance so far (and a tough schedule with just one home game until now):
United States +1
Costa Rica -1
• Seattle coach Sigi Schmid was at the U.S. practice on Sunday after the Sounders won 3-2 against Vancouver here on Saturday night. Two of Schmid's players, Evans and Eddie Johnson, could get the start in front of their home fans on Tuesday, and I asked Schmid if maybe Klinsmann was a bit more open than some U.S. coaches have been to starting MLS players. As many as four (or even five) MLS'ers could be in the lineup on Tuesday.
"I think Bruce [Arena] used MLS players, and Bob [Bradley] did for a while," Schmid said. "There was this thing if you were maybe a reserve player playing on a second-division team in Europe you'd get a shot over a guy starting in MLS. But I think the level of the league having gone up, coaches are a little more inclined to say a starter in MLS is probably a better player than somebody who's playing in the second division in Denmark or Norway. That part's changed a little bit. We have a competitive league [in MLS]."
• On Saturday, I took the U.S. Soccer charter plane with the team for the first time. The federation occasionally makes seats available to the media for a charge that's similar to the one you'd pay flying commercial, and it certainly made life easier for the long journey between Jamaica and Seattle. Counting the short refueling stop in Monterrey, Mexico, it was nine hours from the moment we took off from Kingston until touchdown at Sea-Tac. (Flying commercial and connecting in Miami would have taken a lot longer. Take my word for it.)
The flight itself wasn't overly remarkable. They did serve a lot of food, which I guess makes sense on a plane filled with athletes. We media types sat in the front of the plane with staff, while the players sat in the back, with the coaches in the middle. It's common in European club soccer for media to travel with the team on charters, and while I appreciated the chance to save time, I love my miles so much that I'll probably fly commercial down to Costa Rica in September.