During decades of World Cup qualifying, the U.S. men's national soccer team has ventured into the futbol cauldron of Mexico City, trekked to a sweltering outpost in rural Guatemala, endured unfriendly welcomes in Costa Rica and Honduras and El Salvador, and played on sea-swept specks of land in the middle of the Caribbean.
Until this week, however, the Americans' adventures had never taken them to Panama -- a country better known for a canal, an infamous deposed leader and remarkable baseball pitchers than for soccer players.
"It's probably nice to have a change of pace," U.S. Coach Bruce Arena said.
The Americans have arrived for Wednesday night's match at the top of their semifinal-round group standings following a 1-1 tie at Jamaica three weeks ago and a 2-0 victory over El Salvador on Saturday in Foxboro, Mass. But the Panamanians, who have never come close to qualifying for a World Cup, are coming off a 2-1 upset victory in Jamaica to even their record at 1-1.
Each of the group's four teams is playing a six-game, round robin schedule, concluding in mid-November with the top two finishers advancing to next year's final round.
The U.S. coaching staff has scouted Panama extensively the past few months, led by assistant Curt Onalfo, who has attended three matches, including last weekend's in Kingston, Jamaica. But because the teams have faced each other just once (a 2-1 U.S. victory in the Gold Cup 11 years ago in Dallas) and the Americans are largely unfamiliar with most of the opposing players as well as the setting at 20,000-seat Estadio Rommel Fernandez, this game poses a new set of hazards on the U.S. team's long road to the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Panama has produced more baseball stars than soccer standouts over the years, most notably New York Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera. FIFA, soccer's world governing body, has ranked Panama's soccer team 106th in the world -- three slots behind group weakling El Salvador and 96 spaces behind the United States.
However, "we know it's going to be tough and we're ready for it," U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra said. "They look pretty athletic, and they've got a few dangerous forwards who know how to score goals, so we're not going to take them lightly."
Panama's most accomplished player is 37-year-old forward Julio Dely Valdes, who has played professionally in France, Spain and Uruguay. He has scored in each of Panama's four qualifiers this year: two games against St. Lucia in the preliminary round in June and the recent Salvadoran and Jamaican encounters. On Saturday, his last-minute goal secured the victory in Kingston.
Dely Valdes' striking partner is Roberto Brown, who also scored against Jamaica.
"They outplayed El Salvador [in a 2-1 loss on the road last month] and lost and then got outplayed by Jamaica and won," Onalfo said. "In this round, anything can happen."
Said Arena: "I expect it will be a more up-and-down game, a more even game than the [U.S. team's] El Salvador game. They are more attack-oriented, as a starting point, and they'll present problems for us going forward and we'll do the same."
Arena won't reveal his starting lineup, but there are sure to be several changes -- not because he was upset with anyone's performance against El Salvador, but because his team is playing for the second time in five days and has the luxury of quality depth. Only four players started both the Jamaican and Salvadoran matches.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard, who was untested during the one-sided match with the Salvadorans, has rejoined Manchester United. Arena wouldn't discuss specifics, but the plan all along apparently was for Howard to return to England after one appearance, allowing veteran Kasey Keller to start in Panama.
Eddie Pope likely will rejoin the central defense after sitting out last weekend with a thigh injury, while outside backs Greg Vanney and Frankie Hejduk, the starters in Jamaica, will probably replace Bobby Convey and Steve Cherundolo, who got the call against El Salvador.
And it appears Germany-based Clint Mathis will join Brian Ching on the frontline, with Brian McBride and Conor Casey in reserve.
"I anticipate changes. Probably going to make a change in the goal -- that's at least one change," Arena said with a smirk about the obvious goalkeeping move. "But we don't exactly know how many."
Regardless of who's on the field, the Americans can count on a more free-flowing game than they encountered with the Salvadorans, who resorted to a defensive posture and questionable tactics in an attempt to offset the U.S. superiority. There were several stoppages, including the controversial ejection of a Salvadoran player for wearing jewelry.
"I wish I could say it was very unusual but sometimes in these CONCACAF qualifying games, [but] we've seen crazy games before, maybe not to that extent," Arena said.