PANAMA CITY -- The United States ended its World Cup qualification on an adrenaline-filled high note against Panama after two stoppage-time goals gave Jurgen Klinsmann's men the 3-2 win -- and in so doing, kept Mexico's hopes of reaching Brazil alive.
This is a nation that has given the world many greats -- Roberto Duran, Mariano Rivera, and Jordana Brewster from "The Fast and The Furious," but tonight was almost its Miracle on Ice with Klinsmann's experimental Americans in the role of the Soviets. Panama was bropelled by an exhilarated fanbase in the rainy sweatbox that is Estadio Rommel Fernandez. Luis Tejada's 84th minute goal seemed set to send Panama to the World Cup Finals for the first time, at the expense of El Tri, before Graham Zusi's injury-time stunner and Aron Johannsson's smash-and-grab winner silenced the crowd and shocked the nation.
Here are three quick points from a beer-soaked, sweaty, delirious, unbelievable evening:
Best Hex Ever?
This was the night CONCACAF proved it was no longer the red-headed stepchild of football confederations. Not just because of the theater; in this stadium, it felt as if every Panamanian fan had bought either percussion or brass to create one enormous free-form jazz youth orchestra. Not just because of the surreal drama -- whether the goals were struck here in Panama or in Costa Rica, Los Canaleros' fans reacted as if they had witnessed them with their very eyes, and Mexican fans cheered for the United States just as every Panamanian urged the Ticos on. No, what ultimately made this night was the quality of the football.
Under Jorge and Julio Dely Valdes -- the most interesting pair of twins since Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito -- Panama, which had no choice but to play for victory, went about its task with abandon. The front page of Panama America on game day declared "A Dios Rogando ..." God Helps Those Who Help Themselves. And the Panamanians came so close to doing so from the first whistle, helping themselves to the left flank, countering with pace and daring that ripped the unfamiliar U.S. backline at will. While the Panamanians are still a work in progress, the menace they conjured tonight is the best sign of an improving Hex tournament for World Cup qualifying. This is a city that loves its soccer. The Panamanians will rue the five draws that prevented them from earning their first World Cup qualification the nation craves.
With World Cup qualification assured for the U.S., tonight was always going to mean more for the home team than for Klinsmann's side. Yet the makeshift nature of the squad meant this game was like a high-stakes glee club audition for many of the starters, for whom unfamiliarity and a slick pitch may have been the greatest challenges. Mix Diskerud and Johannsson showed flashes of game-changing flair that could make them squad players, Kyle Beckerman dug in unperturbed, Brad Evans grafted stylishly, but Michael Orozco's 64th-minute goal masked a mixed display. Among those who may feel they failed to make the most of their opportunities: Sacha Kljestan didn't impose himself, and the enigmatic Edgar Castillo played as if hell-bent on ensuring Mexico's qualification one minute, then pulled off a goalline clearance the next.
Bookends to the Hex
The Hex began in February in the sweltering San Pedro Sula, Honduras. It ended in the October showers of a percussion-propelled Panama City. Much has been made of the lessons learned by both players and coach, but now that Klinsmann's team leaves the parallel universe of CONCACAF behind and heads for the clear open waters of World Cup play, the question changes. How good is this U.S. squad, and how big is the gap between it and the European and South American powers it will meet in Brazil? And after today's performance, Ghana?
I spoke to Klinsmann in Panama City and asked him that question. “We are still going through growing pains,” was his response. He delighted in comparing American soccer to the growth of the Bundesliga over the past 15 years, concluding with his signature mix of candor and enthusiasm. “U.S. Soccer is a start-up in comparison,” he says, “but wow, is it an exciting one!” After watching this squad grow game in, game out through the course of the Hex, I admire the way he is managing expectation, but believe the USMNT will be a team no seed will want in its group.