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USA vs. Panama preview: USMNT cannot afford any slip-ups

Throughout the history of the US Men’s National Team (USMNT) attempting to qualify for various World Cups, one venue has stood out above all other as a venue where it is immensely difficult to get a result. Azteca Stadium in Mexico City has held that place in the American soccer psyche for many years but it seems the tables have been somewhat turned following Thursday’s 0-0 draw with El Tri. It may be surprising to hear but the US is now on a four game unbeaten run at Azteca dating all the way back to 2012: a 1-0 friendly win followed by a 0-0 draw in 2013, a 1-1 draw in 2017 and now most recently another 0-0 draw. With a point in their back pocket, the US may just be rolling into the penultimate qualifier with a measure of confidence. But things are incredibly tight in the qualifying race so they cannot afford to slip up in the final home qualifying game against Panama.

Heading into the Mexico game, there was much debate on whether the US should go for the win or field a B team to keep everybody fit for the upcoming game against Panama. Head Coach Gregg Berhalter, whose decisions and tactics have routinely been called into question by fans (justifiably so on many occasions), must be applauded for his choices in Mexico City. He fielded a first choice lineup and went for the win. And while the US didn’t end up winning, that really can’t be put on Berhalter in this instance as a number of golden chances, most notably from Christian Pulisic and Jordan Pefok, were horribly squandered. At the end of the day, a point on the road is nothing to sneeze at. The MO for qualifying has always been take care of business at home, and get points where you can on the road. The US got a point in a tough place, and now it’s time to take care of business at home against Panama.

It’s been a very up and down qualifying schedule for Los Canaleros as they attempt to reach just their second ever World Cup. Things got off to a decent start in September with two draws and a win but October saw two losses and a win. They closed out the year strong as they won both games in November but the calendar change to 2022 has not been the kindest as they have one win, two losses, and one draw through Thursday’s game. That draw was especially harmful as it came at home against a long-ago eliminated Honduras team, leaving them in 5th place so they will likely be in desperation mode these final two games.

Their manager Thomas Christiansen has an eclectic resume having managed a club in Cyprus, before taking over Leeds United in England. Following that stint, he managed in the Belgian second division before being appointed to his first international managerial gig in Panama. Their roster for this final round of qualifying games is an incredibly old one with an astounding nine of the players over the age of 30. The man to watch for the US will probably be forward Gabriel Torres (who now plays his club soccer in Chile) with 22 goal ins 99 appearances for Panama.

Notes:
1. The standings for the Octagonal are as follows: Canada (25pts), USA (22pts), Mexico (22pts), Costa Rica (19pts), Panama (18pts), El Salvador (10pts – eliminated), Jamaica (8pts – eliminated), Honduras (4pts – eliminated)

When and where to watch the game on TV
Sunday, March 27, 2022
Exploria Stadium
Orlando, Florida
7pm ET
Live on FS1, UniMas, TUDN and fuboTV

All-Time Series
USA leads 14-2-6

Last Meeting
Sunday, October 10, 2021
Estadio Rommel Fernandez
Panama City, Panama
USA 0-1 Panama

Current FIFA Ranking
USA: 13
Panama: 63

Next Game
Wednesday, March 30, 2022
World Cup Qualifying
Costa Rica vs. USA
Estadio Nacional
San Jose, Costa Rica
Live on Paramount+ and Universo

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