Andi Herzog's young Yanks have qualified for the semifinals of CONCACAF Olympic qualifying with a game to spare after Friday's 6-1 thrashing of Cuba. That means the team only needs to win one more match to be guaranteed a place in the Rio 2016 men's soccer tournament - and it isn't this one against Panama. All that is required is a win in the next round to be assured a trip to Brazil next summer.
The relative security of knowing this game doesn't count for much might spur Herzog to rest a few key players in advance of the October 10 semifinal. Panama had looked a favorite to claim the other knockout-round berth from Group A of this Olympic qualifying competition, but a draw against Cuba in its opening game raised suspicions Los Canaleros had arrived a little undercooked, and a 3-1 loss to Canada only gave those suspicions further strength.
On paper, Panama has a strong squad, with several players boasting senior national team experience - including Roberto Chen, one of the most highly-rated young defenders in CONCACAF as recently as the 2013 Gold Cup. Chin Hormechea, Fidel Escobar, Kavin Galvan, and Carlos Small were prominent members of the U-20 team that beat its US counterpart into third place and claimed the runner-up spot in January's CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
But if Panama's U-20s exceeded expectations in January, the U-23s have fallen some distance short of the notion they would challenge for an Olympic berth in this competition. They may yet raise themselves for this all-or-nothing (or nothing-or-nothing, since a Canada win over Cuba would put qualification out of Panama's reach), but this looks a lot like a game that won't have great significance to either side.
Los Canaleros will know if they still have hope of qualifying before kick-off, since Canada and Cuba play the game preceding this one. The USA might prefer to win the group and hope to avoid meeting Mexico in the semifinals, but Herzog will know that eventuality is out of his control: if Honduras beats El Tri, then the top team in Group A will face Mexico (who will be runner-up in Group B).
Herzog's best bet is probably to keep his squad fresh and ready for whomever lies ahead in the semifinals. And Panama may not have much to play for but pride.