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Soccer

U.S. return for a World Cup qualifier stirs haunting memories in Panama

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Panama’s Alfredo Stephens (13) plays a pass forward on the attack as the United States’ Michael Bradley (4) looks on during an international friendly match at StubHub Center on Feb. 8.

The banner headline in Panama’s leading newspaper got the mood, if not the vocabulary, right.

Regresa el Fantasma, The Ghost Returns.

But it’s not so much a ghost that has come back to Panama in the form of the U.S. national team as it is a haunting memory that never left in the first place.

In the final game of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying four years ago, Panama was 90 seconds from a win over the U.S., one that would have sent it to a playoff with New Zealand and a chance to win the country’s first World Cup berth.

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But the U.S. spoiled that by scoring twice deep in stoppage time, goals that have haunted much of Panama ever since.

“Obviously a great pain still exists,” Adan De Garcia, press officer for the Panamanian soccer federation, said in Spanish. “We were minutes from a victory and classifying for at least a playoff. It was the closest we’ve ever been to … the World Cup.”

The Americans return to the scene of the crime Tuesday to play another World Cup qualifier at Estadio Rommel Fernandez (7 p.m. PDT, BeIN Sports, Telemundo, NBC Universo). And though this game, the fourth in the 10-game qualifying tournament, won’t decide either country’s World Cup future, it can inflict damage on both teams’ plans.

“This is a very important match,” Coach Bruce Arena said. “We realize every time we play a World Cup qualifier on the road in CONCACAF it will be a very tough game.”

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Last week’s rout of Honduras lifted the U.S. to fourth in the six-team qualifying standings, a point behind Panama, and provided a big lift to a team whose confidence had been shaken by November losses to Mexico and Costa Rica. The U.S. also got a boost from the presence of veteran Clint Dempsey, who sat out the fall qualifiers while being treated for an irregular heartbeat.

Dempsey marked his return by scoring three times during a 22-minute span in the 6-0 victory.

Arena said he will make a number of changes to the lineup he used last week. Midfielder Jermaine Jones, who sat out against Honduras while serving a one-game suspension, will be back and likely will start in place of Galaxy teammate Sebastian Lletget, who has a sprained ankle. Center back John Brooks was sent back to Germany because of a sinus infection.

The U.S. could also make a change at outside back, where Jorge Villafana and Geoff Cameron played last week.

But while the Americans are coming off a decisive win at home, the Central Americans are coming off a crushing 1-0 road loss to Trinidad and Tobago. Tuesday figures to be different for both teams.

For starters, the U.S. win came in a chilly, rainy Avaya Stadium packed with more than 17,000 friendly fans. The forecast for Tuesday calls for temperatures in the mid-80s at kickoff with 77% humidity.

And the expected crowd of 27,000 will be loud, angry and looking for revenge, as will eight of the 14 Panamanians who took part in that 2013 game and are still on the roster. After all, the wound hasn’t healed for them either.

“I’m sure they’re going to come out tomorrow with that in the back of their minds and come with a little bit of fire,” said striker Jozy Altidore, the American captain four years ago.

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The U.S. team also includes Graham Zusi, who scored the goal that ended Panama’s World Cup hopes and gave the intercontinental playoff berth to Mexico, whose fans sent gifts to the man they quickly dubbed him St. Zusi.

Zusi declined to talk about the game Monday. But Altidore did, saying that his memories, and emotions, are mixed.

“I remember that game like it was yesterday,” he said. “Obviously you’re on the field as a professional to do a job. But the human side of me, I felt sad for them. To qualify for a World Cup, that’s the dream of any player. And to be on the side that took that away from them, it’s kind of tough.

“You felt this place dip. You heard people crying.”

Now the ghosts of that night are back, hoping to haunt Panama once again.

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: kbaxter11


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