United States must continue Honduras form against Panama
The United States answered plenty of questions in its 6-0 demolition of Honduras last Friday.
The Americans revealed they could deliver a comprehensive performance when their collective back is against the wall. The U.S. also showed it could play some eye-catching soccer in the process. And yes, this is a deep team that can weather suspension and injury.
But there is little time for the U.S. to savor Friday's victory, as other tests now lie in front of it, the first being Tuesday's World Cup qualifier against Panama. Different questions will be posed as well. Can the U.S. prove to be adaptable by securing a result on the road in a game that figures to be vastly different from last Friday's? And can it cope with another wave of absences?
The U.S. announced before departing for Panama on Saturday night that four players -- Sebastian Lletget, John Brooks, Jordan Morris and Michael Orozco -- would return to their respective clubs due to a variety of ailments.
"It's an unfortunate series of injuries and illnesses," U.S. boss Bruce Arena confirmed at Saturday's training session. "But that's all part of it."
Aiding the U.S. cause is the fact that it will get Jermaine Jones back from suspension, and while there is a strong impulse to have as much lineup continuity as possible, the U.S. would benefit from having Jones' tenacity and energy in midfield, especially in a match that is likely to bear a closer resemblance to a street fight.
"Both teams will certainly have a little bit of a fatigue issue going into Tuesday's game," Arena said. "In Jermaine, we've potentially got a fresh, experienced player to put on the field, which is a plus."
If Jones is included, that would likely push Christian Pulisic out wide and see Alejandro Bedoya available as a sub. That also would leave Darlington Nagbe, who, according to ESPN Stats & Information, misplaced just two passes in 90 minutes of work against the Catrachos, to provide the link play at which he excels out on the opposite flank.
In defense, Arena has the option of moving Geoff Cameron inside in place of Brooks, but the U.S. already is thin at right-back, and the only other option there is Graham Zusi. Zusi has loads of international experience, but is relatively new to the position, having only played a handful of games there for both club and country. That makes it more likely that Cameron will stay put on the right with one of Tim Ream -- who came in for Brooks against Honduras -- or Matt Besler to fill in centrally.
But personnel questions aside, there are also the issues of style and attitude. The U.S. adopted an aggressive, attacking mindset last Friday, and it proved hugely successful, one that had Honduras on it heels throughout. Replicating that level of success Tuesday will be challenging on a number of levels. After opening the Hex with a 1-0 road win at Honduras, Panama has taken just one point from its next two games, including a disappointing 1-0 defeat at Trinidad & Tobago last Friday.
The Canaleros' midfield trio of Amílcar Henríquez, Anibal Godoy and Armando Cooper is also unlikely to allow the U.S. to operate with the kind of freedom it enjoyed against Honduras. Throw in the usual difficulties of life on the road in CONCACAF, and Tuesday's encounter has all the makings of a gritty matchup.
"[Panama is] physical, they're strong," goalkeeper Tim Howard told ESPN FC. "We'll need to match that.
"I think Honduras was very physical as well and they were going to try and impose that on us, and we showed that we could handle that clearly.
"I think technically and tactically, if we play the way we did against Honduras, we were really good with the ball for long spells, and if we can do that, particularly away from home and take the sting out of the game, that crowd will be right [out] of it, so that will help us."
Even if the U.S. doesn't play with the same fluidity, bringing the same mentality into the match will go a long way toward securing a desired result.
"I think you have to be aggressive," Jones told reporters Saturday. "I think you have to show not only that you have quality if you have a nice field and good conditions.
"I think good teams go on the road, go to away games and bring back the points. It doesn't matter. You don't always have to play nice like you did [Friday]."
It's clear that with its first win of the Hex now under its belt, the U.S. is hungry to keep climbing the table and solidify its place inside the top three places that would result in automatic World Cup qualification out of CONCACAF. For all the talk of the fourth-place spot as a fallback position, it's worth noting that the slot would result in a playoff against a team out of Asia, not the cushy assignment against an Oceania team that Mexico enjoyed during the 2014 cycle.
At present, that could end up resulting in a two-legged playoff against a team like Australia -- not an easy assignment by any means. Hence the desire of the U.S. to keep accumulating points, and take care of business in the Hex.
"One good result doesn't mean we're out of the woods yet," captain Michael Bradley told reporters Sunday. "We have to understand that it's going to be a very difficult game here on Tuesday night, and we have the mentality that we need more points.
"We want three, and we're going to play in a way that gives us a real chance to win the game. If at the end, it means that we take one, then so be it. But we've got to follow up good performance on Friday night with another one here on Tuesday night."
In doing so, the U.S. will keep the momentum and its recovery going.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.