When I said in my preview of USA-Jamaica that there would be plenty of opportunities for players on the United State's Men's National Team this week, I talked about how a lot of fringe and or bench players would get a lot of time to play.
After the roster moves that Jurgen Klinsmann made earlier this week, planned and due to injury, there's going to be a lot of players who will have chances to impress the head coach in the final qualifier of the year against Panama (930PM EST, BeINsport).
Tim Howard (Everton) and Matt Belser (Sporting Kansas City) are going back to their club teams as part of a planned rotation. Brad Guzan and Clarence Goodson appear likely to start in their places with the Chicago Fire' Sean Johnson called in to serve as 3rd keeper behind Guzan and Nick Rimando.
And it turns out Klinsmann is basically going to have a brand new midfield tonight against Panama. Landon Donovan and Jermaine Jones were sent home with injury concerns and Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey weren't selected to the original squad for their own injuries. This leaves the USA with only six midfielders on the roster to fill out a potential total of five spots in the starting XI.
Defensively, the US is probably fine. Guzan impressed earlier in qualifying, posting back to back shutouts against Costa Rica in the Snow Clasico and at Azteca against Mexico. With Goodson pairing with Geoff Cameron in the middle and the steady combination of DaMarcus Beasley and Brad Evans on the flanks, I expect a stout defensive effort from the Americans. Edgar Castillo and Michael Orozco Fiscal will likely be manning the bench but I'd expect to see Castillo subbed in for Beasley at some point, just like against Jamaica. His workrate and assist from the last game can't be forgotten.
If the US defense has Kyle Beckerman in the holding mid spot in front of them, which is likely, then I have full confidence in the USA's ability to defend most of what Panama can throw at them. If Klinsmann sticks with his usual two holding midfielders, I'd expect Sacha Kljestan to start along side of him, with Kljestan the one spending most of his time going forward. With Mix Diskerud likely also a possible starting candidate in the central midfield, either along side Kljestan or in that withdrawn striker/attacking mid role, the US formation could be similar to what the New England Revolution play, a hybrid 4-1-4-1/4-3-3
The US deployed more of a 4-4-2 against Jamaica to start, but a second half tactical switch back to Klinsmann's preferred 4-2-3-1 proved the difference as the US finally broke down the Jamaican backline en route to a 2-0 victory.
Graham Zusi, the hometown hero against Jamaica, scored the winner in Sporting Park and will likely be back on his usual right flank with Alejandro Bedoya on the left as he continues to impress with his all around play. Utility man Brad Davis will likely feature off the bench, being able to cover either of the holding spots or the right flank if necessary.
Up front it's more of the same, Jozy Altidore will get the captain's armband tonight against Panama per a tweet from US Soccer. Aron Johannsson put in a good shift in his first start for the US against Jamaica but it was clear the US was better tactically without two strikers. Terrence Boyd and Chris Wondolowski are also available off the bench but I don't think it's likely that Klinsmann will use either player.
It still possible that the Americans could start the game with both players on the field, with Altidore manning the "Dempsey" role at the top of the midfield and the Iceman as the lone striker. But I think it's more important for Klinsmann to trot out a true 5-man midfield in his preferred lineup with Jozy up top.
LINEUP PREDICTION: 4-2-3-1
Guzan; Beasley, Goodson, Cameron, Evans; Beckerman, Kljestan; Bedoya, Diskerud, Zusi; Altidore
Expected Subs: Castillo for Beasley, Evans for Beckerman/Zusi, Johannson for Altidore.
I really want to get this one right and it's pretty good lineup for the USA here. Regardless of where Kljestan lines up he'll be involved in the attack and I really think that Bedoya and Zusi are going to able to make things happen on the flanks.
That being said, Panama is a very desperate team right now, coming off a stunning loss to Mexico just a few days ago at Azteca thanks to Raul Jimenez's ridiculous bicycle kick in the 85th minute. Mexico's win broke a tie with Panama, who both entered the game on 8 points with identical 1W-2L-5D records, and El Tri now sit in fourth place with 11 points, still three back of Honduras for the third and final automatic qualifying spot in CONCACAF. Fourth place will play a home-and-home playoff with Oceanic champion New Zealand.
Panama is going to need some of it's best players to step up huge against a US team that doesn't need a result but isn't going to be lying down for anyone. GK Jaime Penedo has been stellar this year with a great Gold Cup and subsequent move to the LA Galaxy. Blas Perez has only scored one goal in qualifying this year but did have three in the Gold Cup. Gabriel Torres was lighting up the penalty spot and scoring at will in the Gold Cup but he also only has one goal in qualifying. Luis Tejada thought he had a late equalizer against Mexico only to be outdone but Jimenez's heroics. Nothing less than a win for Panama will keep their World Cup hopes alive.
Revolution striker Jerry Bengtson and Honduras need only a draw against Jamaica to ensure they'll get the third and final automatic spot. Mexico can also clinch at least a playoff berth with a result at Costa Rica, the Ticos have locked up a spot in Brazil and sit in second place. All games kicking off at 9:30 PM EST tonight on various television networks.
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