The US Men's National Team had hoped that Bruce Arena's appointment as head coach would revive a flagging World Cup qualifying campaign that appeared to be losing its way after back-to-back defeats in November's opening games of CONCACAF's Hexagonal tournament.
Three of the six teams in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying will make it to Russia 2018, and the fourth-placed team will get a shot via a playoff against the fifth-best team from Asia's qualifying tournament: the Hex is a more forgiving competition than it is often made out to be.
Still, after two games the USA had zero points. There is no shame in losing to Costa Rica in Costa Rica, though a 4-0 loss raised understandable concerns and cost Jurgen Klinsmann his job as USMNT head coach. The 2-1 loss to Mexico that preceded the humbling in Costa Rica was also within the spectrum of expected results for the USA - but it was hard to shake the impression that Klinsi had led the team backwards since he guided it to first place in the Hex on the way to Brazil 2014.
Arena has stepped in to pick up the pieces and get USMNT safely to Russia 2018. So far, so good: his team thrashed Honduras, 6-0, in San Jose (California; San Jose, Costa Rica, is where Klinsi coached his last game in charge of USMNT).
That result has put a spring in the USA's step and helped to allay concerns about the USA's steadily growing injury list. After the Honduras game, four players - Michael Orozco, Sebastian Lletget, John Brooks, and Jordan Morris - were released from the USMNT squad. Just one (Tijuana's Paul Arriola) was called in as a replacement.
Still, there are 23 players on the roster and the big news is Jermaine Jones is returned from suspension and expected to play.
After the 6-0 trouncing of Honduras, almost any result short of a similar runaway win will seem a little like a regression - but it is hard to win on the road in the Hex. In the 2014 cycle, USMNT won two of its five road games - which is part of the reason why USMNT won that particular Hexagonal. A tie or even a loss in Panama no more means the USA isn't going to Russia than the earlier losses to Honduras and Mexico, but it will make winning the team's remaining home games more important. And USMNT will likely need some points on the road if it is going to compensate for losing to Mexico at home and clinch a top-three place in the Hex.
But the pressure is more on Panama than the USA. Bruce Arena already has the minimum he was looking for out of these March qualifiers: three points and the return of USMNT's reputation as a force to be reckoned with at home. If points are dropped in Panama, so be it - not least because Panama managed to lose to Trinidad and Tobago in its last outing.
The loss to T&T has rather changed the perception of Panama's status in this Hexagonal. After they beat Honduras in Honduras and battled Mexico to a scoreless draw in Panama in November, it seemed Los Canaleros might be set for a serious challenge for a top-four spot, maybe even one of the automatic qualifying positions. But losing 1-0 - albeit on the road - to the Soca Warriors puts Panama's achievements in the last three games in a different light: it has scored just one goal, somehow turned that into three points, and the momentous win in Honduras looks more symptomatic of Los Catrachos' problems than Los Canaleros' strengths.
It will be a neat trick if Panama can get another four points in the Hex out of just one more goal. The team needs to start scoring and it needs to get points at home to make up for dropping points in T&T. The Soca Warriors still look like makeweights in this Hex, and are still expected to lose every game they play. They can change that perception with more results like the win over Panama, but Panama can't afford to rely on a T&T turnaround - it needs to start scoring and winning to get back on track for qualification for Russia 2018.
This match of course raises the memory of USMNT's 3-2 win in the last Hex - a win that eliminated Panama from qualification for Brazil 2014 just when it seemed that goal had been achieved. Los Canaleros would surely love to avenge that defeat, and that is merely additional pressure for the home team.
USMNT doesn't have nothing to lose, but it has far less to lose than its opponent - and that should see the Americans playing with the confidence and freedom of a team that knows it won its last game 6-0 and it can more or less do what it likes in this one.
Per livesoccertv.com, here's where to find the game: