You wouldn't expect the U.S. national team to be keen on doing Mexico any favors, but that is what the Yanks will be aiming for when they take on Panama on Tuesday in the final game of the Hexagonal.
A USA win or draw versus the Canaleros would secure fourth place for Mexico in the CONCACAF Hexagonal round of qualifying, and send El Tri into a World Cup playoff against New Zealand. If Mexico wins, Honduras loses to Jamaica, and El Tri overturns a two-goal differential, third place and an automatic berth would be clinched.
The Americans aren’t in Panama to do favors though. Their mission is to record another win in group play, give younger players some valuable experience in a hostile environment, and give Klinsmann more information to work with as he starts the process of preparing his team for the 2014 World Cup.
“Our mindset is straight on playing a good game and going for three points,” Klinsmann said. “This is World Cup qualifying and World Cup qualifying is serious business. Everyone that is here is highly focused and wants to show a good game.
“Obviously we’re happy that we already qualified, but I told the players already before the game last week that we’re already preparing things for Brazil, so whoever goes on the field here has to show everything he has in order to build his case for Brazil.
“We only have a few games going forward,” Klinsmann added. “It’s not much that we can try out and see, so all of our players are 100 percent focused. We know what’s at stake for Panama. We know what’s at stake for Mexico, but we have to take care of our own situation, and we badly want to have three points coming out of that game.”
Winning in Panama won’t come easy considering Klinsmann’s squad will be without many first-choice players. Tim Howard, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey are all missing the match for a variety of injury issues, while Fabian Johnson was left in Germany to rest rather than join the team for this month’s qualifiers.
That means several new faces will be given opportunities to impress in a hostile environment. The young tandem of Mix Diskerud and Aron Johannsson should both earn starts after showing some good signs in Friday’s 1-0 win versus Jamaica.
One new face in the lineup will be goalkeeper Brad Guzan, who will start for the U.S. for the first time since posting consecutive shutouts in March against Costa Rica and Mexico.
"For me, every game I get is important,” Guzan said. “It's a huge chance to not only play but to prove to my teammates and to the coaches that i can be counted on and step in and hopefully do a job for the team.
"It will be a difficult game. Anytime you come to these away games, they're always difficult. The intensity of the crowd, the pride that they have for their country, their supporters will get right behind them and will make it a hostile environment for us. Saying that, they're a good team they've got good players, and it's going to be a challenge, but it's a challenge that I think we're going to welcome and hopefully be up for."
Panama has no margin for error on Tuesday. The Canaleros need a win just to have a chance of catching Mexico, which faces a stiff test with a trip to take on Costa Rica. Though Costa Rica has already qualified, the Ticos are bringing a strong lineup to their Hex finale, and it is clear they have every intention of trying to knock the Mexicans off.
Panama will have a very good chance of securing a win on Tuesday. They will be taking on a makeshift U.S. defense that will be without starting defenders Besler and Beasley, as well as midfield stalwarts Jones and Bradley. That could allow Panamanian forwards Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres the space and opportunity to test Guzan early and often.
The Panamanians offered little resistance when these teams met in Seattle in June, but that 2-0 USA victory saw a Panama side missing several key starters, including the talismanic Perez, who has enjoyed his share of success against the USA in the past.
For the U.S., the challenge will be winning in a traditionally hostile environment despite fielding an inexperienced group on the international stage. If the Americans can get a result, they would not only send a big message of just how deep the team is, they would also be helping Mexico take a step closer to joining the Americans in Brazil next summer.
“It will be a battle for Panama and Mexico to the very last moment,” Klinsmann said. “We’re pleased that things went okay for us, but we also know what’s at stake for the other teams.”