Panama v Canada
Tuesday, November 18th - 8pm Eastern
Estadio Rommel Fernandez - Panama City, Panama
Sportsnet One/Sportsnet World
Four months into the second year of his reign as the manager of the Canadian National Team, Benito Floro takes his squad down to Panama for a Tuesday night clash with tricky CONCACAF opponents.
It has been a rather quiet tenure thus far for Floro, who has had to raise the spirits and reassemble an aging side after that humiliating loss in Honduras.
The 2013 Gold Cup, featuring a roster led by Portland Timbers captain, Will Johnson, a handful young players who were doing well in MLS, and a smattering of veteran and international talents, ended in disappointment: Johnson withdrawn with illness, losing the opening match against Martinique, and exiting after the group stage without scoring a single goal.
Since then with Floro at the helm, Canada has played nine matches, accumulating a record of one win, five losses, and three draws – grim reading, but focus on the last four matches, those played in 2014, and the record lightens, to one win, two draws, and a loss; scoring five goals and conceding four; a marked improvement, given they scored just once in the 2013 calendar year.
Integral to that recent revival, if it is not too soon to speak of it as such, has been Floro's complete overhaul, applying his system and developing a sturdier team shape, with a focus on maintaining possession once gained and moving the ball well; in the process giving young players a chance to test their mettle, while relying on veterans to help guide the transition.
Tuesday's match in Panama will be a good test for the team as they build towards next summer's Gold Cup and beyond. The silence of the past year will soon give way to a rush of matches, as the 2015 Gold Cup flows into Qualification for the 2018 World Cup and 2016's Copa America Centenario, though Canada's inclusion in the New World showcase is far from likely.
And there is no better place for Canada to lay a marker of intent than in Panama, one of the trickier away fixtures in CONCACAF (who can forget the warm welcome Panamanian fans gave the Canadians the last time they met, partying late into the night outside the team hotel) – not that any are particularly easy, each with their own challenges.
Ranked 56th in the world, as per the most recent FIFA Rankings (Canada sits at 122 – their lowest ranking since the system was created in 1993), Panama enters the match in solid, if unspectacular form, having placed third in this past September's Copa Centroamericana with a 1-0 win over El Salvador in Los Angeles. They missed out on a chance at the championship by finishing second to eventual-winners Costa Rica in the group stage. Los Canaleros drew 2-2 against the Ticos, but won their match over Nicaragua by just two goals, whereas Costa Rica won by three, taking the group on goal difference.
Since then, Panama has played one match, losing 1-0 to Mexico in Queretaro, during the October international break, though they have a friendly rematch against El Salvador in San Salvador on Friday night (tonight).
The squad assembled for the pair of matches – against El Salvador and Canada – features many familiar names for CONCACAF and MLS watchers, with the likes of defenders Roman Torres and Luis Henriquez and midfielders Gabriel Gomez, formerly with the Philadelphia Union, and Armando Cooper, of Arabe Unido fame (he currently plys his trade in Argentina with Godoy Cruz) in camp. Up top veteran striker Luis Tejada has seen in all, while Colorado Rapids' designated player Gabriel Torres is still looking to find his best form since moving to MLS.
Absent are a few of their more experienced players - LA Galaxy keeper Jaime Penedo is in the midst of the MLS Cup Playoffs, centre-back behemoth Felipe Baloy, consider by many to be one of CONCACAF's top defenders, and FC Dallas striker Blas Perez, himself recently knocked out of the playoffs by Seattle – some promising talents – defender Roberto Chen, who plays with Malaga in Spain – and regulars - midfielders Nelson Barahona and Amilicar Henriquez - Panama brings with them a veteran and experienced squad with just eight of the nineteen players under the age of 27 and just six with fewer than twenty international caps.
Panama are one of the rising forces in CONCACAF, surging as high as 29th in the FIFA Rankings (March 2014) having languished as low as 150th in the mid-90s. One of the key men responsible for that impressive soar was manager Julio Cesar Dely Valdes, who saw them climb from 70th to 35th under his tenure, which came to an abrupt end following their shocking defeat on the final match day of the CONCACAF Hexagonal stage of World Cup Qualifying with a stunning late collapse against the United States.
Panama, winning 2-1, looked Brazil bound as the match entered injury time, but two goals, in the 92nd and 93rd minute, by the Americans stunned the expectant crowd, overturning the result and allowing Mexico to back into the World Cup. Had the scoreline held, Panama would have advanced on goals scored – the third tie-breaker – to make their first-ever appearance at the prestigious FIFA summer (for now) event - presuming, of course, the won the playoff against the Oceania winners, New Zealand, as did Mexico.
Dely Valdes fell on his sword following the shock, to be replaced by Colombian Hernan Dario Gomez Jaramillo, a man with extensive experience, both a player and manager, on the club and international scene.
Prior to the Copa Centroamericana, Gomez led his side through four matches, losing to Brazil and Peru, and drawing Serbia before handily defeating Cuba in the build-up to the September tournament.
Canada should be well acquainted with their CONCACAF opponents, as this will be the fifth meeting between the two over the past four years, having played out a scoreless draw in the recent Gold Cup.
The two were drawn in the same group in the Third Round of 2014 Qualification, Canada winning 1-0 at home in Toronto – Dwayne De Rosario the lone scorer - and Panama winning 2-0 in Panama City - with Rolando Blackburn and Blas Perez scoring - and drew 1-1 in the 2011 edition of the Gold Cup in Kansas City. De Rosario gave Canad the lead only for Luis Tejada to equalize in stoppage-time, allowing Panama to progress out of the group at Canada's expense. Panama would go on to reach the final, losing 1-0 to the USA after beating Cuba and Mexico in the knockout rounds.
Waking the Red discussed the Canadian Roster when it was announced earlier this month; a nice mix of veteran experience with youthful energy.
A few themes to keep an eye on:
Milan Borjan, who would be a solid number one if he could only avoid that one-error per match – think conceding a late penalty kick with his side facing a history Champions League draw in Liverpool type flub.
Atiba Hutchinson is no doubt the key player on the Canadian side at the moment, but with veterans Patrice Bernier and Julian de Guzman and young challengers Jonathan Osorio, Russell Teibert, Bryce Alderson, and Kyle Bekker in camp, just who will line up alongside Atiba in the middle of the pitch? Not to mention that Issey Nakajima-Farran was spectacular against Colombia last month and ended the season strongly for Montreal.
At the back, it has been a tough season for Nana Attakora and Ashtone Morgan, who both saw their minutes in MLS plummet to near-zeros. Can either take this chance to put their best foot forward before building to next season, or will the likes of Karl Ouimette and Maxim Tissot usurp their spots? And is David Edgar the new ever-presence at the back? He was immense against Colombia and Jamaica.
One final thought: Just who will score the goals for Canada? Given it's against Panama, perhaps De Rosario has a few more in his boots.
A list of Voyageurs viewing parties for the match can be found here
Update: Since this preview was originally compiled on Friday, Panama have played that friendly in El Salvador, winning 1-3, exacting a second victory over the Salvadoreans having also beat them in September's Copa Centroamericana.
Nicolas Munoz and Anibal Godoy gave the visitors the lead inside of 25 minutes, but a 38th minute penalty kick from Alexander Larin drew the hosts within one before half-time. Roberto Nurse would seal the result for Panama in the 85th minute.
A cursory examination indicates that the Panamanian side featured a five-man midfield and a single striker system; manager Gomez appears to have use just one substitute, replacing his striker Munoz on the hour-mark with Nurse.
Here is the reported starting eleven: Jose Calderon; Luis Henriquez, Harold Cummings, Roman Torres, Adolfo Machado; Armando Cooper, Alberto Quintero, Gabriel Gómez, Aníbal Godoy, Ricardo Buitrago, Nicolás Muñoz
Buitrago was not reported in the initial nineteen called into camp on the roster below, the 29 year-old midfielder plies his trade in the domestic league with Plaza Amador
Óscar McFarlane - Pérez Zeledón (CRC)
José Calderón - Dep. Coatepeque (GUA)
Román Torres - Millonarios (COL)
Harold Cummings - Juan Aurich (PER)
Adolfo Machado - Saprissa (CRC)
Luis Henríquez - Lech Poznan (POL)
Roderick Miller - Mérida (MEX)
Carlos Rodríguez - Fortaleza FC (COL)
Leonel Parris - Uniautónoma (COL)
Alberto Quintero - Mineros de Zacatecas (MEX)
Aníbal Godoy - Honved (HUN)
Armando Cooper - Godoy Cruz (ARG)
Rolando Escobar - Dep. Anzoátegui (VEN)
Gabriel Gómez - CS Herediano (CRC)
Francisco Narbón - James Madison University (USA)
Nicolás Muñoz - Isidro Metapán (SLV)
Roberto Nurse - Correcaminos UAT (MEX)
Luis Tejada - César Vallejo (PER)
Gabriel Torres - Colorado Rapids (USA)