USA TODAY Sports’ Martin Rogers recaps the World Cup qualifying match between the USA and Panama.
USA TODAY Sports
PANAMA CITY – Tim Howard long ago cut out the waffle when it comes to analysis and didn’t pull any verbal punches late Tuesday night.
“When you are an old dog like me a few minutes into the game you realize you are playing 12 against 11,” the United States goalkeeper said, in reference to the refereeing standards in his team’s 1-1 draw with Panama. “The referee is on the field to protect both sets of players. If he doesn’t do that it is tough.”
Just a few miles down the road from the birthplace of one of the finest boxers of all time — Roberto Duran — the U.S. felt like it had been through a slugfest here in its latest World Cup qualifying test.
At least in the minds of the Americans their opponents were twofold, the pumped-up home side hungry for a big scalp, and the Mexican refereeing crew marshaled by Cesar Ramos.
Such judgment of the officials is always going to be subjective at the very least. The times when Ramos seemed to have swallowed his whistle led to a game that was played at a ferocious pace and was highly entertaining.
To lend support to Howard’s claims, though, a look at the statistics revealed that 24 fouls were committed over the course of 90 minutes, 14 of them by Panama, yet not a single yellow card was meted out.
“That’s CONCACAF,” Howard said, talking about the tough region incorporating Central and North America and the Caribbean, where the level of soccer does not match that of Europe or South America but where other challenges present themselves.
For road games the U.S. might not be able to rely upon the quality of officiating, but it can count on the hostility of the rival crowds. Going away from home the fields aren’t great, bumpy and unpredictable. The weather, intensely humid on this occasion, is a challenge.
Panama’s support was vociferous and boisterous in the best possible way, creating an intimidating atmosphere that clearly lifted its own players.
To have come through such a night relatively unscathed, coupled with the good vibes and goal differential bump accrued last Friday against Honduras, and it has been a pretty solid week’s work.
“The referee didn’t blow his whistle much,” head coach Bruce Arena said. “It hasn’t changed a whole lot in CONCACAF. It is a battle. Panama threw us off our game, to their credit, the physicality made it a real rough game.”
There might come a time when the U.S. is actually grateful for a night like this. A victory here could have given it a little breathing space in the race to reach Russia next summer. Still in the fourth spot, with three teams to go through automatically, the squad is locked in a qualifying scrap that it should emerge from but can’t afford to sleep on.
Former coach Jurgen Klinsmann routinely obsessed over the fact that the U.S. does not by nature face enough world-class opposition during the qualifying process. Yet there is something to be said for withstanding trials and tribulations, and learning from them, learning about yourself. That objective might have been achieved here, particularly with a group short of several key players and with an 18-year-old, Christian Pulisic, as its most significant attacking threat. Pulisic showed his worth again, setting up a first half goal for Clint Dempsey that was cancelled out by Gabriel Gomez.
Under Klinsmann, something got lost amid the quest to make the U.S. a world power capable of outstanding technical proficiency, namely that the national team had a few qualities of its own that other nations would quite like. The Netherlands would happily give up a bit of its splendid skillset for a bit of American resiliency right now. Argentina wouldn’t mind a bit of backbone and a mindset that encourages togetherness.
Remember, the only thing that matters in getting to a World Cup … is getting to a World Cup. Brazil is running away with the South American region, just as Mexico is sprinting clear in CONCACAF. Neither will start with any points advantage once the World Cup tournament itself begins in Russia.
The preparation is in the process — tough nights, hard tackles, poor referees included.
Follow Martin Rogers on Twitter @mrogersUSAT.
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