So much of the focus on the U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifying peril is focused on the Americans, that it's easy to forget what's at stake on the other sideline.
And for Panama, it's massive.
A win over the USA would secure a top-three finish in CONCACAF's Hexagonal and Panama's first World Cup berth in its history, while relegating Bruce Arena's side to clinging to the hope of fourth place and an intercontinental playoff. It would secure a remarkable rise for Los Canaleros, often a pesky but second-best afterthought in the region, constantly inferior to the USA, Mexico, Costa Rica and even Honduras. Always good enough to compete, never good enough to take the leap.
Its history is littered with close calls. In 2005, it took the USA to penalty kicks in the CONCACAF Gold Cup final, only to be stymied by Kasey Keller and fall 3-1 in the shootout. In 2013 it found itself in another regional final against the USA, only for Brek Shea's second-half winner in Chicago to prove to be the difference in another tight, 1-0 result.
It was a few months later that the most devastating of the close calls occurred. On the cusp of securing a place in an intercontinental playoff vs. New Zealand for a World Cup berth, while sending Mexico tumbling out altogether, Panama needed a win at home against a USA side that had already qualified. Jurgen Klinsmann brought a second-choice squad, but one that came with a first-team mentality. That much was evident in the waning minutes, when Graham Zusi etched his name in World Cup qualifying lore with a stoppage-time equalizer that cut into Panama's soul. Aron Johannsson polished off the stunning result moments later, kicking Panama while it was down, and the USA eliminated the hosts while saving archrival Mexico. The rest–including the Mexican TV broadcast call–is history.
“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” USA forward Jozy Altidore said in March, ahead of their last meeting in the CONCACAF Hex. “It was tough. Obviously, you’re on the field as a professional to do a job. But the human side of me, I felt sad for [Panama], because I know what it’s like to go to a World Cup, to qualify for a World Cup. That’s the dream of any player. To be on the side that took that away from them, it’s kind of tough, but at the same time it’s part of the game.”
Four years later, and look at where we are.
Panama heads to Orlando, ironically 15 miles south of San Zusi's hometown, with the ultimate chance to right all wrongs. Sure, it's had a couple of opportunities since, albeit on a much smaller scale. It beat the USA in a forgettable third-place game in the 2015 Gold Cup on penalties to deliver a flesh wound. But here it has an opportunity to do much more damage. No, it's not quite in the same position as the USA was in 2013. It has everything to play for, and losing sight of the big picture would be a colossal misstep in its approach. But don't underestimate the revenge factor as added motivation.
"I remember those last three minutes the most," Panamanan goalkeeper Jaime Penedo told ESPN FC in 2014, recalling the heartbreak. "Only football can give you that–you're winning the game and then in a minute and a half, you're losing, and you've lost the chance to go to the World Cup. Those are experiences that, well, they're so painful, but hopefully, you grow from that and become stronger."
When speaking to Panama's close calls in March of last year, Luis Tejada, whose goal had seemingly put Panama in position for the intercontinental playoff before Zusi struck, said: “We just need to make that step, because sometimes we get everything right and then we go and trip up right at the end. We have to win these types of matches to change our history. And as soon as we do that, then we’ll start winning titles and qualifying for World Cups. We’re learning and putting things right. We’re a humble, hard-working team, and we have faith.”
Zusi was asked about his infamous goal on Monday, as the USA began its training preparations for the vital matches ahead while looking to qualify for an eighth straight World Cup. His answer, predictably, did not ruffle any feathers.
"I don't dwell on that too much," Zusi said. "Not thinking about that at a time that's a whole different cycle. It is what it is, it happened. Total focus is toward Friday."
As is Panama's–with slightly more incentive.