Breakdown: Key matchups of US-Panama

The U.S. men’s national team has faced Panama in each of the past three Gold Cups, eliminating the ‘Canaleros’ from each tournament. The nucleus of top players for all of those Panama sides is back and will be looking for the upset when the teams meet tonight in Gold Cup Group C action.

The United States is coming off a strong tournament-opening victory against Canada, while Panama held off Guadeloupe for its own opening victory. Here are the five key match-ups to watch tonight as both teams square off with first place in Group C on the line.

USA strikers vs. Panama centerbacks

Altidore did well to overpower Canada’s defense in the opening match, but he’ll find that a much tougher task against the powerful and experienced Baloy, who is Panama’s best defender. Altidore often tries to run by bigger centerbacks, and will need to hit his top gear to beat Baloy.

Panama gave up a pair of goals to Guadeloupe and centerback Eduardo Dasent took plenty of the blame. If, as expected, Roman Torres replaces Dasent in the lineup, Agudelo could use his speed to win this battle and have a better game than he had against Canada.

USA centerbacks vs. Panama forwards

While Canada’s Simeon Jackson is a faster forward, and better forward, than any of Panama’s strikers, the tandem of Blas Perez and Luis Tejada will be a handful for Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson.

For starters, Panama plays two natural strikers, unlike Canada, so Ream and Goodson will be covered from the start and will be tested defensively on a more regular basis. Perez has been one of the best strikers in CONCACAF for several years, and has scored against the United States twice before in Gold Cup play. Goodson will need to deal with Perez’s deceptive speed and deadly finishing, while Ream will likely be called on to deal with the more physical Tejada.

The Panama counterattack vs. the USA defense

Panama boasts a very effective counter, with some good speed in midfield and up top. The U.S. midfield and forwards cannot afford to be too sloppy with the ball, not that they were against Canada. If the American midfield can control possession like it did in the opener, and if Ream and Goodson can deliver crisp passing out of the back, Panama will find counterattack opportunities few and far between.

USA’s central midfield vs. Panama playmakers

Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones choked the life out of Canada’s midfield in the opening win, but the American tandem faces a much different challenge against Panama. Mobility and creativity are hallmarks of Panamanian midfielders Armando Cooper and Nelson Barahona and Amilcar Henriquez, but unlike Guadeloupe, the USA midfield is capable of applying stifling pressure on all of Panama’s creative players.

USA’s wingers vs. Panama’s fullbacks

Clint Dempsey had all sorts of freedom getting forward against Canada, but he’ll have more defensive responsibilities against Panama. Conversely, Landon Donovan spent more time focusing on the defensive side of things against Canada, but will be needed to go after Panama’s fullbacks, who aren’t exactly lockdown defenders. As good as Panama’s counterattack is, the USA counterattack could torch Panama if Dempsey and Donovan get rolling early.

The United States-Canada will be live on FOX Soccer Channel, with pregame starting at 7:30 p.m. ET.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.