USMNT seeks cathartic victory over Panama to close January camp
CARSON, Calif. --
September feels like an epoch ago for the U.S. men’s national team. The dawn of the next stage brought patience and promise after a creditable trip to the round of 16 in Brazil last summer. The victory in the Czech Republic even supplied a shiny gloss to the experimentation and the tinkering ahead. The next few months offered a chance to assess the available options and chart a revised course for the next FIFA World Cup cycle.
Those tenets correctly remain in place, but the subsequent downturn in results started to shift the focus away from those distant objectives. The chatter commenced after a pair of second-half fades led to avoid draws against Ecuador and Honduras in October and then picked up steam after the dismal 4-1 defeat to a weakened Rep. of Ireland in November. The late unraveling in Chile a week ago stoked the flames even further and ushered in a week filled with broadsides about preseason fitness levels and training methods.
Most of these debates flared as a result of the frustrations on the field. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann and his players are in the midst of playing the long game, but the short-term exertions and setbacks extract their toll, too. There is only one way to smooth the currently choppy waters. And it involves procuring a victory against Panama at the Home Depot Center on Sunday (4:00p.m. ET, ESPN, coverage on MatchTrax and @FOXSoccerTrax).
“Right now, the focus is a win,” U.S. forward Chris Wondolowski said after training on Friday. “It’s kind of an interesting time. Sometimes at January camp, you’re more trying to develop the play, the formation and the style of play. To be honest, we want to get a win. That’s our main concern, in any way possible: Pretty, ugly or indifferent. That’s our plan right now.”
It is not a foolproof one, as the past few matches revealed. There were promising passages of play in the 3-2 defeat at Estadio El Teniente last week, but the overall performance once again fell short of the desired standards. Those problems emerge naturally given the point on the calendar (out-of-season for this MLS-dominated camp) and the relentless churn in the second half (designed to provide experience for fresh faces, not foster coherency within the ranks), but they offer little cover now.
At this stage, the Americans crave a performance of substance to reflect the work undertaken over the past few weeks and stop the recent run of poor results. It is not enough to play for an hour and then struggle through the rest of the affair. This task requires the sort of complete display often elusive in recent times.
The opposition will not provide any favors, either. Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez left out some of his regulars due to club commitments and named a group light on experience in defense, but he still kept the fabric of the side intact. The continued presence of familiar faces like Jaime Penedo, Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres ensures a base level of application and competitiveness from an opponent in the midst of its own preparations for the CONCACAF Gold Cup this summer.
“I think it’s become a tough game,” U.S. forward Jozy Altidore said. “They’re very athletic. If we’re not careful, we may not get a result in this game as well. We need to be on our toes and understand that it’s a team that’s going to come here with a lot of emotion and play to win the game. We have to be on our toes.”
There is little risk of complacency given the predicament and the potential changes. Klinsmann must contemplate the shape of his team after fielding a 3-5-2 in the first half against Chile and weigh potential lineup alterations based upon the evidence gathered. He must also wonder how to balance his desire to give fresh players experience at the international level with the need to place his team in the best possible position to succeed.
“You want them to get rewarded for a month-long camp,” Klinsmann said. “You want them to get a positive result. You want them to get a good game. You want them to kind of say, there was a lot of work we put in here, let’s get three points, even if we all know it’s a preseason friendly game.
“But it’s an international game and we want them to pick up that importance of an international game and get the result they deserve,” Klinsmann continued. “Overall, they worked very hard, every one of them, no matter what base they had when they came into the camp. They gave everything in training. You wish for them that they get the result and then they walk out of here with a smile on their faces.”
It is an emotion well worth chasing right now. The overarching goals still beckon in the medium- and long-term. This game will not determine the success or failure in those departments, but it does constitute an opportunity to bring those happy days back again.