FOX Soccer Exclusive
USA won't face Panama at full strength
Don’t buy it, no matter what anybody says. Because for all the talk of craving further wins, this is not a United States men's national team is at war strength, or anything even remotely resembling it, whatever may be proffered or suggested or implied. Consequently, this final World Cup qualifier away to Panama (live, Tuesday, 9:30 p.m. ET) isn’t a game the Americans are going out of their way to win, even if head coach Jurgen Klinsmann had said several times that he wished for his already-qualified side to win their remaining games. From the looks of it, they’re scarcely doing more than turning up.
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If you accept, as you probably should, that the preferred lineup at present fields Tim Howard in goal; Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley on the back line (from right to left); Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in central midfield; Landon Donovan on the right and Fabian Johnson on the left; and Clint Dempsey below Jozy Altidore up front, then you can’t help but notice that all but three of those players are absent for this last qualifier.
Only Evans, Beasley and Altidore will be present in Panama City, barring injury or an unexpected personnel decision by head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. Of those three, Evans and Beasley have tenuous holds on their full back jobs. Evans plays in midfield for his club team Seattle Sounders and seems a decent recovery from surgery by Steve Cherundolo or a firmer commitment to the national team program by Timmy Chandler away from losing his spot. Beasley, the re-made 31-year-old left winger and veteran of three World Cups, is merely a stop-gap solution to a long-time problem position. And while Klinsmann has professed his confidence in him there, in spite of the lack of competence Beasley sometimes shows at the position, a better alternative may yet be found. That leaves Altidore as the only merit-based, rather than incident-based, starter in the squad for this game.
There’s a good explanation for most of the absences. Gonzalez is injured – a hip sprain. Bradley and Fabian Johnson have ankle issues. Dempsey was deemed insufficiently fit to earn a call-up for this game or the preceding 2-0 home win over Jamaica on Friday because of a nagging hamstring injury. The team’s captain did start for the Sounders against the Portland Timbers on Sunday, however, going 77 minutes. More puzzling still is Saturday’s dismissal of Howard, Besler, Jones and Donovan from the squad. Yes, Jones and Donovan aren’t 100 percent, playing through a knee and an ankle injury, respectively. But Howard and Besler are merely being sent home to give positional rivals Brad Guzan and Clarence Goodson a chance.
This is a hard-earned prerogative. Following an austere 1-1-1 start to the so-called hexagonal round of qualifying – in which the six best teams of the region play a double round-robin – for next summer’s big tournament in Brazil, the Americans won four of five, booking their ticket with a gutsy 2-0 home win over Mexico on Sept. 10.
Those two last games, then, counted for naught. Still, Klinsmann spoke of wanting to win, of retaining the momentum built over a rousing summer in which a 12-game winning streak was cobbled together by a combination of the A-team in qualifying and the B-team in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. After beating Jamaica on Firday, he has now seemingly rescinded this wish ahead of Tuesday's finale. Or, if you’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, he has at the very least forfeited some of the better means at his disposal. Klinsmann could easily have retained a majority of his regulars in the lineup but has chosen not to.
Guzan and Goodson have already been named starters. Expect Donovan to be replaced by Graham Zusi, who infused a rather lackluster performance against the Reggae Boyz with a goal as a substitute on Friday. Jones will likely be supplanted by either Kyle Beckerman or Sacha Kljestan. Or both of them could start, if Mix Diskerud is benched following an underwhelming outing against Jamaica.
Regardless of who is on the field, the question if this is an opportunity missed is an urgent one. Panama has it all to play for. After losing away to Mexico on Friday – courtesy of a world class, 85th-minute Raul Jimenez bicycle kick – they need a win. If they get it, Mexico loses a tough away game to Costa Rica and the Canaleros improve their goal difference relative to Mexico’s by three – an eminently attainable goal – they snatch El Tri’s ticket for the playoffs with New Zealand.
This is the last competitive game the USA will play before the World Cup – and just three friendly dates remain until the World Cup camp convenes sometime in late May. And one in which Panama is fighting for its World Cup life, at that. Why throw that away? Why waste such an opportunity to build and tinker and sharpen? Why not run out the reserves against Jamaica, which was practically eliminated and, as expected, played like it?
There’s no telling now or on Tuesday night or even in the coming months what the long-term ramifications of making the most of a rare competitive game will be. There may not be any. Or it may be that down in Brazil next summer, a certain lack of chemistry and cohesion and understanding at fault for a premature elimination could be traced back to a failure to forge such at every possible opportunity.