Just as U.S. national soccer team coach Bruce Arena had predicted many months ago, the semifinal round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup has been riddled with treacherous road trips and perplexing home matches, with erratic officiating and mysterious opponents.
So it's no surprise that the Americans, the overwhelming favorites to win their four-team group and advance to next year's final stage of qualifying, would like to escape this risky round as soon as possible.
U.S.'s Frank Hejduk, left to right, Clint Mathis, Brian McBride and Josh Wolff celebrate McBride's goal in a win over El Salvador on Oct. 9. The U.S. team can advance to the final round of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup with a victory over Panama tonight at RFK Stadium.
(Luis Rivera -- Reuters)
_____U.S. vs. Panama_____
Group Standings: U.S. 2-0-2, Panama 1-1-2, Jamaica 1-1-2, El Salvador 1-3 (El Salvador plays at Jamaica tonight).
U.S. Roster (clubs in parentheses): GKs Kasey Keller (Tottenham Hotspur, England) and Tim Howard (Manchester United, England)*; Ds Frankie Hejduk (Columbus)*, Eddie Pope (New York/New Jersey)*, Gregg Berhalter (Energie Cottbus, Germany)*, Carlos Bocanegra (Fulham, England)*, Bobby Convey (Reading, England) and Oguchi Onyewu (Standard de Liege, Belgium).
MFs Landon Donovan (San Jose)*, Kerry Zavagnin (Kansas City)*, Cobi Jones (Los Angeles), Tony Sanneh (Columbus), Pablo Mastroeni (Colorado), DaMarcus Beasley (PSV Eindhoven, Netherlands)*, Eddie Lewis (Preston North End, England)*, Clint Mathis (Hannover, Germany); Fs Brian McBride (Fulham, England)*, Josh Wolff (Kansas City)*, Eddie Johnson (Dallas), Conor Casey (Mainz, Germany).
They can accomplish that tonight at RFK Stadium, where they'll face Panama in the fifth game on their six-match schedule.
"We don't want to drag it out," veteran defender Eddie Pope said.
A U.S. victory would clinch one of the group's two slots in the final round, but a tie would leave the Americans (2-0-2) needing last-place El Salvador (1-3) to upset host Jamaica (1-1-2) in the other game tonight.
If things don't go its way, the United States would have to settle matters in a Nov. 17 finale against Jamaica in Columbus, Ohio.
"It would be nice" to secure a spot tonight, Arena said yesterday following a light workout at RFK. "However, I think this is going to be a heck of a battle and nothing's given. Our team needs to be ready to play and they need to play well."
Panama (1-1-2) probably deserved to win the first encounter between the teams, which ended in a 1-1 tie on Sept. 8 in rainy Panama City. The game was scoreless at the half following several missed opportunities by the U.S. team. The Panamanians dominated the second half, went ahead on Roberto Brown's goal in the 69th minute and should have extended the lead when the U.S. defense began to get caught forward.
But reserve Cobi Jones scored a dramatic equalizer during injury time, putting away a shot by Landon Donovan that had gotten stuck in a puddle in front of the net.
"Their front-runners are a handful," Arena said, referring to Brown, playmaker Julio Medina, forward Julio Dely Valdes and midfielder-forward Ricardo Phillips. "It made for a long evening for us. . . . So far in the competition, they've been as impressive as anyone in the group. They've played extremely well and they've proven they can win on the road" after beating Jamaica in Kingston last month.
Arena went with a three-man defense against El Salvador last weekend, but with Panama's speed and fearlessness on attack, it's unlikely he'll take a similar approach tonight.
Enigmatic midfielder Clint Mathis probably won't get the call tonight after scuffing a clear shot in the first half and sending several passes badly astray in San Salvador.
In addition, defender Cory Gibbs, who started against El Salvador, is suspended for accumulating yellow cards. His spot on the left side will likely be filled by England-based Carlos Bocanegra, who sat out the previous game with a minor hamstring injury.
The American defense will be under the most scrutiny after faulty performances on the road against Panama and Jamaica.