Already guaranteed top spot in Group A, the United States will go into its Gold Cup group match against Panama on Monday with a dilemma over whether to again rotate players or to try and build the cohesion that has so far been lacking from its performances. The U.S. has begun the defense of its Concacaf crown with two straight victories, but was far from convincing in beating both Honduras and Haiti by a single goal.
Klinsmann has made repeated reference to the lack of time for players to recover with a game every three days in the group stage. As a result, only Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and goalkeeper Brad Guzan have started both matches so far. Yet in both contests there were major scares for the U.S., with Honduras coming close to a late equalizer and Haiti repeatedly threatening on the counter-attack during the first half of the match in Foxborough last Friday.
Given that there are now five days before the U.S. will play its quarterfinal match and that Panama is still fighting for qualification, Klinsmann has insisted that he will not be taking the game lightly.
“The approach is picking up more rhythm, going for another three points, and finishing off the group with three wins,” he said, according to the U.S. Soccer Federation’s website. “We take that very seriously. We also know we have influence on who is going through, so we are not taking our foot off the pedal there.
“We will give it a very good game and keep on building confidence and fine tuning elements and improve our game. As you saw there was still some stuff that was not so good, so we keep working on that. It’s a nice feeling knowing we are already first, but it doesn’t mean that we are slowing down now. It should be the opposite -- we’ve got to keep raising the bar.”
Panama will have painful memories of the USA failing to take its foot off the gas in what for it was an essentially meaningless contest. In the final game of Concacaf qualifying for the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. was already guaranteed to be in Brazil, while Panama needed a victory, coupled with a Mexico defeat, to clinch a playoff with New Zealand for a place in its first ever World Cup. That achievement was in Panama’s hands when, with Mexico losing, it went in front with seven minutes remaining in Panama City. However, its dreams were stunningly dashed when Graham Zusi and Aron Johansson, both of whom could be involved on Monday, scored in injury time.
This time around Panama goes into the game in second place in Group A, with two points, one ahead of both Honduras and Haiti. A victory would be enough to secure progress, but anything else would leave the team, now coached by Hernán Darío Gómez, needing to depend on results elsewhere. The top two teams from each of the three groups will make it to the Gold Cup quarterfinals, along with the two third-placed teams with the best record.
So far Panama, losing finalists at the hand of the U.S. two years ago, has been left with little doubt that it was drawn into the toughest group at this year’ Gold Cup. After conceding an 86th minute equalizer to Haiti in its opening game, Honduras struck an 81st minute leveler to deny Panama victory last time out. The blow of the result last Friday has been deepened by a late sending off for left-back Luis Henríquez and a second yellow card of the tournament for Adolfo Machado that means both will be suspended against the U.S. at Sporting Park in Kansas City.
Kickoff time: 9:30 p.m. EDT
TV channel: Fox Sports 1, Univision Deportes, UniMás