Jozy Altidore returns with the U.S. to scene of Panama's 2013 heartbreak
PANAMA CITY, Panama -- It's a game that Jozy Altidore remembers "like it was yesterday."
The date was Oct. 15, 2013, and the site was Panama City's Estadio Rommel Fernandez. In CONCACAF, it was the final night of qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. The United States -- which had already punched its ticket with two games to spare -- was taking on Panama. The Canaleros trailed fourth-place Mexico by three points, but if they won and Mexico lost on the road to Costa Rica, Panama would qualify for a playoff spot against New Zealand via a tiebreaker.
The Ticos did their bit, beating Mexico, 2-1 paving the way for Panama. An 83rd minute strike from Luis Tejada put them 2-1 in front, but then disaster struck for the home side. Graham Zusi's goal in the second minute of stoppage time brought the U.S. level. Aron Johannsson's strike sealed matters a minute later, but countless Panamanian hearts had already been broken.
Meanwhile, Mexico delighted in an unexpected gift from its fiercest rival, one it took advantage of by beating New Zealand in a playoff. A "San Zusi" meme popped up as a result, (Zusi opted not to speak to the press on Monday) but the near silence in the stadium is what Altidore remembers most.
"You felt this place dip," recalled Altidore, as he stood in the very same stadium prior to Monday's practice session. "Emotionally, you heard people crying. It was a tough night. But at the end of the day, we had to take care of our business.
"Obviously, you're on the field as a professional to do a job, but the human side of me, you felt sad for them because I know what it's like to go to a World Cup, to qualify for a World Cup.
"That's the dream of any player. To be on the side that took that away from them, it's kind of tough. But at the same time, it's part of the game."
Even current U.S. manager Bruce Arena, who was managing the LA Galaxy at the time, remembers the night well.
"If we were smart enough we wouldn't have broken their hearts," he joked. "It was pretty stupid if you ask me. You think Mexico would have scored a goal [for us] at the end of that game?"
On Tuesday, the two sides will square off once again, though with considerably different stakes. Granted, both teams are once again aiming for World Cup qualification, but just three out of the 10 Hexagonal rounds have been contested, so this encounter is more about taking an intermediate step rather than the final one.
But Panama is a country still haunted by what took place in 2013. Panamanian outlet La Prensa's headline on Monday was "Regresa El Fantasma" -- "The Ghost Returns" -- in reference to the U.S. team. The respect for the U.S. on the street is immense as well.
"Not even witchcraft can stop them," said one cab driver about the U.S.
Altidore is convinced the Canaleros will use the defeat from 2013 as motivation.
"I'm sure they're going to come out tomorrow with that in the back of their minds and they'll come out with a bit of fire," the Toronto FC striker said.
Both teams need to focus on the present, however, as the U.S. and Panama are each in need of points. After opening the Hex with two defeats, the U.S. appeared to get its qualifying campaign back on track with a 6-0 thumping of Honduras, its first qualifier since Arena took over from Jurgen Klinsmann as manager.
A win will see it leap over Panama and into third place. Panama meanwhile was suffering a hugely disappointing 1-0 defeat to previously winless Trinidad and Tobago. It was a loss made more galling by the fact that Kevin Molino's game-winner took place with Panama defender Roman Torres on the sideline re-tying a shoe that had come off.
As for Arena, he has attempted to ease expectations after what was easily the most impressive U.S. performance in ages. More than once he's said that the game will bear little resemblance to Friday's match, and he did so again during a roundtable with reporters on Monday.
"You just know it's going to be different," he said. "Our team is well aware. The game isn't going to look like Friday, they know that. That's the reality of qualifying."
Yet there is every reason for optimism in the U.S. camp. The Americans' have yet to concede in the three games since Arena took over, and the U.S. attack is operating at its peak. Clint Dempsey is coming off a hat trick, and his 55 international goals are just two shy of Landon Donovan's U.S. record of 57. Christian Pulisic continues to play well beyond his 18 years. And Altidore, while he didn't score, did plenty of little things to aid the U.S. attack, and last Friday was involved in the buildup on three of the six U.S. goals.
That ability to contribute in ways other than scoring is something that Altidore has done with more consistency, especially since the start of the 2016 MLS season. Altidore has improved his holdup play, defense, and ability to link with others.
"I know I've been around for a long time, but you're always improving," said Altidore. "Nobody is the finished article, even me at 27.
"There's still things I can learn and get better at. That's what I've tried to do; watch my videos, watch how I perform and try to be better, watch some of the best strikers in the world and try to learn from them. You're never done learning."
The U.S. certainly hopes it's not done winning, though the challenges keep piling up. Arena said at his pregame news conference that he's expecting to make "four or five" changes to the starting lineup that took the field against Honduras.
Two of those will be forced due to the illness of defender John Brooks and the sprained left foot sustained by Sebastian Lletget, with Tim Ream and Jermaine Jones the leading candidates to fill in. DaMarcus Beasley could see time at left-back given his deep well of experience in World Cup qualifying.
Whether Arena makes changes beyond that will be known on Tuesday, but either way, the U.S. hopes to have another game to remember in Panama City.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyCarlisle.