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FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier versus Panama.
FOX Soccer News: Preview of USA's World Cup qualifier versus Panama.
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Leander Schaerlaeckens

Leander Schaerlaeckens has written about soccer for The New York Times, The Guardian, ESPN The Magazine and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter.

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SEATTLE

A DAY IN THE OFFICE

Check out the best images from USA's World Cup qualifying win over Jamaica.

When the United States men's national team finally made it up to the Pacific Northwest, where the craziest of soccer crazies have resided for some time now, it was to be a perfect match.

In a region where the cooler temperatures should favor the Americans over all their more southerly rivals and large crowds could be relied upon to be overwhelmingly pro-USA, those factors would conspire to forge a stronghold. It would be the Yanks’ own bastion, where they could take tricky opponents and intimidate them with circumstance, the way their regional foes have done to them for so many years.

Or so the reasoning went.

But heading into their World Cup qualifier against Panama ( live, Tuesday, 10 p.m. ET), it isn’t looking like an altogether flawless idea. In spite of CenturyLink Field’s 67,000-seat capacity – capped at 45,000 for the night because of a simultaneous Seattle Mariners ballgame next door – ticket sales are stuck around 35,000. A Seattle Sounders Major League Soccer game drew 53,679 fevered fans there on Saturday, raising questions about the actual interest in the national team.

The FieldTurf at the Clink – as some locals refer to their stadium – has been covered with grass sod for the occasion, at the request of the United States Soccer Federation. The lack of real grass had long been seen as the major obstacle to Seattle being awarded a qualifier, even though FIFA allows play an artificial fields.

A United States Soccer Federation spokesman explained that the surface had been laid earlier than usual – to accommodate the Sounders game, but also to grow and settle in better. The federation’s insistence on proper grass is commendable. But after the Sounders’ 3-2 win over the Vancouver Whitecaps, the players complained bitterly about the temporary field. “Ridiculously terrible,” Whitecaps goalkeeper Brad Knighton called it. “It’s heavy, it’s bumpy, the turf’s coming up, and it’s just a weird surface to play on.” He even went so far as to suggest it might be to blame for the injury of teammate Andy O’Brien.

By Monday, the field looked brown and lifeless in certain patches.

"It's far from ideal," said midfielder Michael Bradley. "Seattle certainly deserves a game, but the field leaves a lot to be desired."

Captain Clint Dempsey had no issues with it, however. “I would say the field is good,” he said on Monday, having practiced on the much-discussed sod on Sunday. “The ball rolls good. The ball will be rolling quickly, which is important, and be rolling true. I’d rather play with real grass put over turf than on just turf.”

A slow and soft field, so the thinking goes, will favor the Panamanians. Because what the stodgy Canaleros lack in individual talent they compensate for in organization and defense sturdiness. “They’re together since a long time and you can see that, it’s a team that’s really in tune with each other,” said USA head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “So we expect a very difficult game tomorrow night – a very difficult game.”

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Panama will sit deep and let the USA run at them. “They’re a team that’s very difficult to break down,” said Dempsey. “If we play the ball quickly and have good movement off the ball I think we’ll do fine.”

But that, again, is premised on a having a playable field to work on.

Panama have stifled their opponents sufficiently to earn three draws and a win from their four qualifiers thus far, and are just one point adrift of Costa Rica (2-1-1), the USA (2-1-1) and Mexico (1-0-4). The Americans are coming off an impressive 4-3 friendly win over Germany and their first ever qualifying victory in Jamaica, a 2-1 nail-biter.

Now, then, a chance to build a little momentum, something so very elusive in these two years of “Klinsmannship,” finally presents itself. “What we’re trying to build is consistency,” said Klinsmann. “The big picture is becoming consistent as a team and the results being consistent. I think that process is going well.”

“We’re starting to see the team take more shape, starting to have more chemistry and just feeling more comfortable,” added Dempsey. “The vibe is good. Anytime you’re getting good results people are going to be happy, especially dealing with the situations that we had in March [when there were reports of discord within the team following the 2-1 loss in Honduras in the hexagonal round opener].”

United States Soccer

HEAT OF THE MOMENT

See the best images from the USA's win over Germany on Sunday.

But there are complicating factors aplenty. Whereas Panama is merely without star striker Blas Perez, who was felled by gastroenteritis, the Americans will have to make do without right winger Graham Zusi and his pinpoint crossing (suspension), central midfielders Jermaine Jones (concussion) and Danny Williams (lacks fitness) and forward Herculez Gomez (knee contusion). This sends Klinsmann into a scramble to fill four midfield roles in his 4-4-2 system, just as a satisfying combination had at length been found.

What’s more, the Americans will only be two whole days removed from a ten-hour journey from Jamaica and a two-hour time difference, coming the morning after a grueling night-time game.

Nonetheless, these are the games where the USA are to get their points – against Panama on Tuesday and against Honduras in Salt Lake City next week. That’s how qualifying for the World Cup out from CONCACAF works: you steal a few points on the road and take care of your home games.

“It’s a huge game for us and we badly want three points in this game and then next week in Salt Lake,” said Klinsmann. “Those are home games and they’re must-wins.”

Seattle will get a chance to deliver on the promise it has so long held for the USA. But for all the initial euphoria, the prospect is now fraught.

More Stories From Leander Schaerlaeckens

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