The USA’s quest for a sixth continental championship begins Saturday night in Nashville, Tennessee, where Bruce Arena’s team will play a Panamanian side that’s become a relatively frequent opponent in recent years. Los Canaleros have had a say in the Americans’ CONCACAF Gold Cup fate in each of the past six tournaments, and they will again this year—even though Saturday’s game is their first of the competition.
The Group B opener at Nissan Stadium will be, by far, the USA’s most challenging match of the group stage. The quartet’s other two teams, Nicaragua and Martinique, have won a combined two Gold Cup games in their modest histories. For the USA and Panama, advancement to the knockout rounds isn’t a question. What’s at stake is their position in the bracket. The Group B winner will face a third-place finisher from one of the other two groups on July 19 in Philadelphia. The runner-up will be paired against the Group A winner—likely Costa Rica or Honduras—and face a tougher path to the semifinals.
“I think it’s going to be a great test against Panama,” U.S. midfielder Paul Arriola told reporters. “I think it’s going to be the key to moving forward in the tournament.”
Panama isn’t a traditional regional power, but it's been a much more difficult out over the past decade-plus. The USA has beaten Los Canaleros in two Gold Cup finals, but just barely. The U.S. needed penalty kicks in 2005 at the old Giants Stadium, and in ’13, the Americans outlasted Panama at Soldier Field thanks to a fortunate second-half tap-in from Brek Shea.
Panama is responsible for the USA’s only group-stage defeat in Gold Cup history, a 2-1 setback in ’11 in Tampa. They took the Americans to extra time in the ’09 quarterfinals and two years ago, comprehensively outplayed Jurgen Klinsmann’s squad in a dispiriting bronze medal game decided on penalties.
“I feel like we see them every couple of months,” said U.S. defender Graham Zusi, who’s famous in Panama and Mexico for the 2013 goal that crushed the World Cup dreams of the former and saved those of the latter. “They’re a dangerous team. They counter pretty well and their set pieces are very dangerous as well. It’s a game we’re going to have to be locked in for a full 90 minutes.”
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Confidence seems high around the U.S. camp following last week’s 2-1 friendly win over Ghana, a team more talented than most of the Gold Cup field. This is an experimental American team missing big-name veterans like Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Tim Howard and European stars like Christian Pulisic, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron. In their place, Arena is taking a long look at several players who might state their case for a role in this fall’s World Cup qualifiers or, perhaps, next summer’s big show in Russia. If they can make amends for a fourth-place finish two years ago and lift the Gold Cup at the end of the month, all the better.
Arena’s new team showed well against Ghana. Forward Dom Dwyer was plugged in for his USA debut and finished one of the handful of decent scoring chances he created against the Black Stars. Veteran Chicago Fire midfielder Dax McCarty and up-and-coming FC Dallas star Kellyn Acosta were composed and in control in the middle of Arena’s 4-4-1-1, while Joe Corona and Kelyn Rowe each showed flashes of creativity. In back, the experience of Zusi, Matt Besler, Jorge Villafaña and goalkeeper Brad Guzan helped shore things up. It’s probably close to the starting lineup Arena will deploy against Panama, which like Ghana is an athletic side that attacks directly.
“I thought it was a good performance against a good team,” Arena said following the Ghana game. “I think it helps us answer some questions we have about certain players. It was a good game to get us prepared for the game against Panama.”
Said Zusi, “I thought looking back at the Ghana game, that was a very good intro game to lead into this tournament. I thought the guys responded very well, and Panama is going to pose kind of a similar task to deal with…It’ll be a good test for us at the beginning of the tournament.”
Like the USA, Panama—which is in fourth place in the Hexagonal, one point behind the Americans—is resting some of its regulars for the Gold Cup. Among the familiar names being given the summer off are goalie Jaime Penedo; defenders Felipe Baloy, Román Torres and Adolfo Machado; midfielder Alberto Quintero and forwards Luis Tejada and Blas Pérez. Instead, Panama’s team likely will revolve around San Jose Earthquakes linchpin Aníbal Godoy, Toronto FC’s Armando Cooper and former Philadelphia Union midfielder Gabriel Gómez. The most experienced forward in camp is Gabriel Torres, who played for the Colorado Rapids in 2013-15.
For both teams, the collective chemistry will be relatively new. But there are plenty of familiar faces, and these teams are accustomed to playing each other with something on the line. The only difference is that this time, the repercussions will be felt further down the road—both individually and as a unit.
“Especially for the younger guys, it’s a great opportunity to step on the biggest stage that we can be on right now and show that [we] can step up and make an impact,” Arriola said. “That’s what everyone is looking for and that’s what everyone is hoping for, and that’s what we’re expected to do—not just from everyone outside of the team and the federation but inside as well. I think all of us are very confident in one another. I think against Ghana we showed great potential and we did really well together for the first time.”