On Tuesday, the U.S. takes on Panama, in Panama City, in the final game of the Hexagonal round of World Cup Qualifying (9:30 p.m. ET, beIN SPORT). After defeating Jamaica on Friday, the U.S. has the top spot in the group secured. Panama, however, needs a win (and Mexico loss away to Costa Rica) to give them a chance at the play-in game versus New Zealand.
The U.S. was perfect at home in the Hex, winning all five games, scoring eight goals, and allowing none. Away from home, however, the U.S. has so far gone 1-2-1, scoring only four goals and allowing six. While one of those losses came
over a year ago back in February away to Honduras in the first game of the Hex, the fact remains that the U.S. hasn’t been nearly as good away from home.
Coach Jürgen Klinsmann has made a few alterations to the roster, some planned, some not. Jermaine Jones and Landon Donovan have both been sent home due to injury concerns that they came into camp with. Jones has a knee problem that will require minor surgery, and has been playing through pain. The U.S. coaching staff determined he would be best served by going home and having that treatment, rather than continuing to play when the Hex is already won. Jones’s absence likely gives Kyle Beckerman an opportunity.
Similarly, Donovan has an ankle problem that has been bothering him, and has returned to the LA Galaxy for treatment. Though, it would not be a surprise to see him play for LA, who have an important game against Montreal Impact on Wednesday, a game that will go a long way toward determining whether either team makes the playoffs. After his performance against Jamaica, Graham Zusi will surely get a start in Donovan’s place.
Tim Howard and Matt Besler have also been sent home, in pre-planned moves, opening the way for Clarence Goodson and Brad Guzan to make starts.
Against Jamaica, the U.S. played much of the game in 4-4-2, to accommodate two strikers, Aron Jóhannsson and Jozy Altidore. While Jóhannsson looked consistently dangerous, and could have scored a couple, it was clear that the two of them hadn’t had sufficient practice- and game-time together to really click, especially with the absence of Michael Bradley. Without Bradley’s tempo and possession skills in midfield, the U.S. had a difficult time creating useful possession in the attacking third, and didn’t provide good service into the strikers.
Once Jóhannsson was removed, and the U.S. switched to a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1. Packing the central midfield with another player with good ball-retention and passing skills, Sacha Kljestan, the U.S.’s team play improved dramatically, eventually resulting in two goals. Klinsmann, then, is presented with a difficult choice. Jóhannsson and Altidore clearly need more playing time together, but away from home and with Panama desperately needing the win, the U.S. might be better served using a more possession-oriented formation.
Of course, the question may be moot, as it’s unclear whether Panama is good enough to really trouble the U.S., regardless of the U.S.’s formation. Panama has only won one game in the Hexagonal, 2–0 over Honduras at home, back in March. That, however, may be misleading, as Panama also has five draws, including 2–2 against both Honduras and Costa Rica, which is to say they have been tough to beat. And that’s especially true at home, where Panama is 1-0-3, having scored four goals and allowed only two.
Without Bradley, Jones, or Donovan — three of the expected World Cup Finals starting midfield for the U.S. — the U.S. will have to work doubly hard to ensure they win the possession battle. Players like Alejandro Bedoya, Mix Diskerud, Beckerman, and Brad Davis, who all shone in the Gold Cup, have a great opportunity to prove they can perform at a higher level, while free of the fear that failure means the U.S. loses out.
With so many first-choice midfielders absent, it seems clear that 4-4-2 will not be the starting formation, with Jóhannsson the likeliest to miss out as a result. The player is very young, and will have several more opportunities to start in in friendlies before the U.S. goes to the World Cup. Against Panama, he is most likely to feature as a sub.
The player most likely to benefit from Jóhannsson’s loss is Kljestan, with the U.S. midfield pairing him and Beckerman, and Diskerud, Bedoya, and Zusi ahead of them. Kljestan looked quite good in his cameo against Jamaica, and deserves a chance at a start. If Klinsmann wants to rotate Brad Davis into the starting lineup, then Bedoya will probably be the one to sit.
As for the result, this one could go a lot of ways. If the U.S. scores early, Panama may lose belief, knowing that a win is the only result that helps them. However, if the U.S. fails to score in the first 20 minutes, then it could be tight the whole way. Away from home and with their second-choice midfield, the U.S. seems unlikely to score right away, but will pull it out in the end. The U.S. wins, 1–0, and finishes the Hex on a high.