The U.S. Men’s National Team and Panama have a lot of history, but it’s all very recent.
Somewhat surprisingly, the teams didn’t meet for the first time until the 1993 Gold Cup. It took 11 years until they played again. Since their 1-1 World Cup qualifying draw in Panama City in September 2004, the sides have played some very memorable matches.
There’s Panama’s first and only win against the United States, the lone defeat for the U.S. in the Group Stage of a Gold Cup to this day. Then there’s the USA defeating Panama on penalties in the 2005 Gold Cup Final, and Break Shea’s game winner in a rematch of the final in 2013.
None of those games, however, provided the drama that unfolded in the final match of CONCACAF qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup a few short months after the Gold Cup triumph.
With the U.S. easing into their seventh straight World Cup berth a month earlier, Jurgen Klinsmann had the opportunity to evaluate his roster in competitive match situations, while the team got to play pseudo “King Maker” in determining who between Panama and Mexico would advance to the Intercontinental playoff with New Zealand.
With Panama needing a win and a Mexico loss to advance, U.S. players were asked prior to the game about the potential for laying down in the match in order to keep the team’s biggest rivals out of the World Cup.
“We weren’t really looking at scenarios at that point,” Graham Zusi told ussoccer.com. “We had qualified, but we were looking to finish out the campaign on a strong note. The World Cup team hadn’t been selected yet, so you’re looking for a place in the 23 guys going to Brazil and you’re fighting until the end.”
Still, the match had more meaning for Panama and they came out firing in front of their home crowd as Gabriel Torres found the game’s first goal in the 18th minute. Brad Davis’ corner picked out Michael Orozco to equalize for the U.S. in the 64th minute, forcing Panama to go searching for another goal to advance.
With Mexico trailing 2-1 at Costa Rica, Panama got a dramatic go-ahead goal in the 83rd minute when Luis Tejada pounced on a rebound at the six-yard box, electrifying the crowd at Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
As the game entered stoppage time, Panama looked to be heading towards the two-match playoff with New Zealand, but with a team full of players fighting for a spot in Brazil, the U.S. struck back as Davis picked out Zusi who headed home the equalizer in the 92nd minute, sending the packed stadium into utter despair.
“When that goal went in and the stadium went absolutely silent, I’ve not heard something to that effect,” remembered Zusi. “It was really surreal, a strange feeling.”
With Panamanian dreams all but shattered, the U.S. added insult to injury by grabbing a game-winner from Aron Johannsson, who tucked his low blast inside the left post a minute later.
Under another scenario, Johannsson would have celebrated wildly. The goal was the first of his international career and capped an incredible stoppage time comeback, but driving the final dagger into Panamanian World Cup hopes instead saw him give a muted reaction.
“Obviously it’s nice to win, but you just see all the players went down. They had a very tough time and the whole stadium is quiet,” Johannsson told ussoccer.com. “It was mixed emotions. Obviously for us, we go out to win every single game and for me to score the winning goal and first of my national team career is very special, but the circumstances were a bit strange.”
After the final whistle blew, the U.S. players consoled their counterparts more than they celebrated themselves.
“It was tough to say something to them because we just beat them and kicked them out of the World Cup,” continued Johannsson. “They just fell down crying on the pitch. It was a difficult situation to be in. We just walked around, shook their hands and tried to tell them to keep their heads up. It’s hard to know what to say and it’s hard to be in that situation especially when you lose in the 90th minute and almost qualify for the World Cup.”
The teams find themselves in a similar situation as they enter Monday’s group finale at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan. A Panama win would guarantee their advancement as the second-place team from Group A and a draw would potentially get them through in second or third place.
However, another loss to the U.S. could see them miss the knockout round for the first time since last missing the tournament in 2003.
While the two teams played in a friendly earlier this year, the stinging loss to the U.S. in October 2013 certainly stays with the Panamanian team.
“There will always be that little spot in the back of their mind where they’re thinking about that game and what we did to them,” said Zusi. “I fully expect them to come out and treat this game like it’s the most important of their lives. It’s certainly not going to be an easy one.”
“It probably sits in them that we knocked them out of the World Cup and I think they really want to beat us,” agreed Johannsson. “I think all the teams in CONCACAF really want to beat us. They come out there and fight their best against us every single time. It’s going to be a tough game, but we’re ready for it and we have players that have played difficult games before. We go out there and try our best to get three points again.”