The U.S. national soccer team's preparations for a World Cup qualifier against Panama on Wednesday began at 35,000 feet.
In the spacious forward cabin of the team's charter flight from rainy Salt Lake City to this muggy seaside capital on Monday, a VCR and a laptop computer were bonded to a standard living room TV resting on a table. Tapes of last Saturday's matches -- the Americans' 3-0 victory over Costa Rica and Panama's 2-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago -- were played and replayed and, ultimately, condensed into 10-minute packages for the team to review upon their arrival.
While players slept, played cards and watched a Dave Chappelle video, Coach Bruce Arena analyzed the tapes while lying in the aisle. Assistant Glenn Myernick took notes and goalkeepers coach Phil Wheddon edited the clips on the laptop.
Despite what they saw -- an impressive U.S. victory that moved the team a step closer to the 2006 World Cup in Germany, and another disappointing road performance by Panama -- no one is anticipating an easy evening at scruffy Rommel Fernandez Stadium.
The desperate Panamanians (0-2-2 and two points) are in last place in the six-team, final-round group and, unless they win Wednesday, their only realistic hope of reaching their first World Cup probably will be chasing fourth place and advancing to a special playoff against an Asian side in the fall.
"They're going to throw everything they have at us," Arena said. "I can't imagine after five games, having two points, you're going to be in great shape. I don't think three points is necessarily great either, so I think they have to come at us hard. I'm not sure they're capable of playing us over 90 minutes. If we're smart, we're capable of coming out of here" with a victory.
Asked if overconfidence is an issue, he added, "if we're overconfident, we're completely stupid and we shouldn't be qualifying for a World Cup anyway."
Panama has gone 2-4-0 on the road since qualifying began last summer, including a 6-0 thumping at RFK Stadium in October. At home, however, the Panamanians are 2-0-4, with ties against the two regional super powers, the United States and Mexico. Last September, after being badly outplayed in the second half on a messy field, the Americans escaped with a 1-1 draw on Cobi Jones's last-minute shot from out of a mud puddle.
"They're a very good team and they have nothing to fear," midfielder Landon Donovan said.
Although Wednesday's match marks only the midway point of the schedule, the Americans (3-1-0) are fully aware of what a victory would mean. With all the other finalists struggling, the United States and Mexico could separate themselves from the rest of the group and virtually lock up two of the three automatic bids to next summer's tournament. The Mexicans (3-0-1) are preparing to host Trinidad and Tobago (1-2-1) in Monterrey.
The U.S. team traveled about nine hours Monday to get here, with a refueling stop in Cancun, but that was nothing compared with the Panamanians' adventure. Even though they played Saturday in a country 1,200 miles to the east, they had to fly a specific airline to and from Port of Spain, Trinidad, via Miami -- nearly 2,800 miles each way.
A missed connection lengthened the return journey to 36 hours. The team wasn't able to practice Monday and had to wait until late Tuesday to get back onto the field.
Local enthusiasm for a showdown with the Americans seems to be waning. Unlike last fall, when fans set up an enormous sound system outside the U.S. team's hotel late at night upon the Americans' arrival, people went about their business late Monday. The only commotion early Tuesday was the protests against the Panamanian government's proposed reforms to the social security system.
"It's a hard game," Panamanian forward Luis Tejada told the Panama America newspaper, "but nothing is impossible and we can win against the United States."
Soccer notes: With Saturday's shutout of Costa Rica, U.S. goalkeeper Kasey Keller has not yielded a goal in 237 minutes of World Cup qualifying play. . . . Defender Oguchi Onyewu, a Sherwood High graduate who plays in the Belgian league, made the trip but isn't expected to be available because of a strained knee ligament. Dutch-based midfielder John O'Brien, who is working his way back into shape after long injury layoffs, also is doubtful.