USA-Panama. October 15, 2013 at Estadio Rommel Fernandez in Panama City.
In terms of the CONCACAF Final Round qualifying standings for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, it’s a game that mattered little for the United States. Having locked in their place in Brazil with a 2-0 win against struggling rivals Mexico back on Matchday 8, the U.S. then clinched top of the group with another two-goal shutout on Matchday 9 against Jamaica in Kansas City.
On the flip side was a Panama team that still had a glimmer of hope at qualifying for its first World Cup. Going into the match in fifth place sitting three points behind Mexico, Los Canaleros not only needed to beat the U.S. but also hope for Costa Rica to pull off an away win at Estadio Azteca in a simultaneous match. Doing their part was a fully-charged crowd, packed to the brim at the 45,000-seat Estadio Rommel Fernandez.
With a few starters carrying injuries, for the most part U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmman elected to give time to a mostly green set of players who would utilize the match to make a case for their inclusion on the MNT roster in Brazil. What the starting XI lacked in experience – eight starters had seven or fewer previous qualifying caps – it more than made up for in motivation, knowing a solid performance could be the difference in realizing the dream of playing in the World Cup.
Feeding off the energy of the fiery, red-clad home crowd, Panama came close in the 12th minute when Marcos Sanchez’s low cross was swept away in the box by Michael Orozco.
However, the deadlock wouldn’t last long. Panama’s high press forced an Edgar Castillo turnover in their attacking third. Quickly moving back into attack, Alberto Quintero slotted a through ball for Sanchez at the top of the area. There he centered a pass for Gabriel Torres, who one-timed his effort inside the lower, left post, sending the crowd into a frenzy.
Things could have gotten out of hand early, when just a minute later another U.S. turnover at midfield sprung Luis Enriquez breaking up the left. With each stride, the winger earned louder roars from the crowd before looking up to find Blas Perez open outside the box. His centering pass fell perfectly, but the veteran striker didn’t hit it as cleanly as he would have liked and the play ended with Brad Guzan smothering the shot just off his goal line.
Save for Alejandro Bedoya’s ambitious effort from outside the box in the 38th minute, Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was largely untested during the first half, taking the home side into the locker room up a goal. During the respite, the Panama team surely would have also learned that Costa Rica and Mexico were deadlocked 1-1, a result that wasn’t enough to help Los Canaleros.
Having taken the first 45 minutes in from the bench, soon-to-be substitute Brad Davis sat there foreshadowing what contributions he could bring if called upon by Klinsmann in the second frame.
“I was sitting there, watching the game in the first half just feeling like there was a lot of space out wide,” he said. “If we had the possession, move the ball out wide that I could get in good spots and serve the ball.”
The U.S. got on the front foot early in the second frame, with Brad Evans’ overlapping run on the right leading to a low cross looking for Jozy Altidore, only to have Penedo bravely smother the effort to keep the lead. Meanwhile, news rang in from Mexico City and the dispatches reached the players on the field. They were told something to the effect of, “¡GOL de COSTA RICA! Dos a uno a favor Los Ticos!
Costa Rica had pulled back ahead of Mexico as Alvaro Saborio’s 64th minute goal made it 2-1, instantly reinvigorating Panama. That enthusiasm fell silent seconds later when the substitute Davis delivered a deadly, whipping corner kick which looked destined for the head of Clarence Goodson. Instead, the defender’s role almost seemed to be a decoy on the play, as the ball fell for Orozco who fought off the challenge from Carlos Rodriguez to stab home his first World Cup Qualifying goal.
A member of Mexican side Puebla at the time, Orozco ran to the sideline to meet U.S. substitute DaMarcus Beasley and fulfill a pre-game promise he had mentioned to his club teammate.
“[Beasley] and I have a little celebration at Puebla - we do the Maracas … I told him ‘“Beas,” I’m going to score and we’re going to do the Maracas this time man.’ And we got it in.”
Costa Rica had once again helped Panama, but the home side needed another goal to hold up their end of the bargain. That potentially historic goal came in the 83rd minute when Roberto Chen found acres of space on the right before centering a dangerous cross. Guzan was there to punch out the initial effort, but Luis Tejada was on the spot to poke home the rebound. Back in the lead and with Costa Rica still on top of Mexico, this time Panama thought they booked their World Cup ticket.
And this is where the story takes a small aside.
As is common in many CONCACAF venues, a lack of working internet at Estadio Rommel Fernandez prevented that day’s team photographer Mike Janosz from steadily uploading shots for use on ISI Photos. With the USA now down 2-1 in a game where the result didn’t mattert to the visitors and Panama continuing to attack, Janosz was beckoned up to the press box to finish his uploads.
(If you know anything about this game, you can guess why that choice would turn out to be regretted. It’s also the reason most of the rest of this piece is supplemented with video.)
Janosz packed up his gear and made his way up the raucous grandstand. Halfway to the press box at the start of stoppage time, the photographer had his back turned when Edgar Castillo fed a ball for Davis on the left where he perfectly weighted a cross to find Graham Zusi. What he would have seen if he was still on the field was the midfielder rising at the penalty spot where he reached his peak height to head the ball and beat Penedo inside the left post to make it 2-2.
The stadium went from boisterous celebration to stunned silence as fans realized what just occurred. Panama players dropped to the ground full of remorse, lamenting the fact that their decision to continue to attack had devastating consequences.
According to Goodson, the tactic surprised the U.S. players.
“It was one of those things where they really kept guys high still,” said the center back. “They were winning the game and they should have dropped off, they should have put guys in the box. They had a lot of gaps in their team with the game being so late and the World Cup on the line. We punished them for that.”
As the beIN Sports replay of the critical moment continued to run back for viewers in the United States, colorful television analyst Ray summed Zusi’s goal as “a big flamin’ spear through the heart of Panama.”
In Costa Rica, Mexico striker Javier Hernandez, who had been subbed out of the match, sat disconsolate on the El Trí bench, until news of “San Zusi’s” goal reached him seconds later.
Despite still having a couple minutes to regain the lead, Zusi’s goal seemed to take all air out of the Panama side. Fans sat dejected hoping for a miracle, while deep down they knew their fate.
Less than a minute later it got worse for them when substitute striker Aron Johannsson sent home the death blow.
Receiving a pass from Terrence Boyd on the right, Johannsson took the real estate provided to him by a despondent Panama defense and fired a low blast inside the left post.
“FORGET A DRAW! IT’S A WIN FOR THE U.S.,” exclaimed Phil Schoen on the beIN Sports broadcast.
In any other circumstance, the celebrations from the U.S. team following a second stoppage time goal to win would have been wild, but players recognized the situation and quietly congratulated Johannsson on the strike – also his first for the MNT.
Seconds later the final whistle blew, and Johannsson - along with many other players - was at a loss with how to react.
“Obviously it’s nice to win, but you see all the players -- they went down,” he said. “They had a very tough time and the whole stadium went quiet. 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.”
It was an extra win to add to the USA’s finish at the top of the Hex, but what about the fact that they’d just helped rivals Mexico into the intercontinental playoff with New Zealand and a near certain World Cup berth?
“With everything, you always play to the final whistle,” midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. “I didn't care about that, trying to help Mexico. I know some of our fans didn't want them to be in the World Cup. For us it was also a case for players to prove themselves and try to make a name for themselves."
In the end, seven of the 14 players that appeared for the U.S. in that match made the 2014 World Cup roster, including Davis - whose two assists sparked the comeback - and Johannsson and Zusi, whose stoppage time goals remain memorable.
And then there’s Panama’s recollection of the match, one which has provided motivation against an opponent against which they have played to 1-1 draws in each of the four matches that have occurred since.
“I think there will always be that little spot in the back of their minds where they’re thinking about that game,” Zusi said.
While the stakes were immense for Panama in that game four years ago, they’re equal for both sides in USA-Panama, Presented by Volpi Foods, on Friday. A Panama win would book a direct ticket to the country’s first World Cup, while a U.S. victory would put the team in the driver’s seat for that spot heading to Trinidad & Tobago on Oct. 10.