The Nations of the 21st World Cup – Panama

Panama National Team

Panama NT

Los Canaleros

Every four years, national pride and footie artistry reach peak levels in a global dance of no small magnitude, the World Cup is here again. This summer, all eyes will be focused on Russia as the time to crown a champion draws ever near. With the sport’s best and brightest from 32 lucky nations on display, it’s time to take a look at what each squad brings to the table. We will dive deep beyond the usual team sheets, we’ll scratch beyond the player names, and get you ready to be the smartest on the couch/bar stool for Russia 2018.

Panama

Qualifying Record (W-D-L) 6-5-5
Current FIFA World Ranking (May 2018) – 55th
World Cup 2014 Finish – DNQ
Russia 2018 Group G (Belgium, Panama, Tunisia, England)
Formation – 4-4-2 (variable)
Strengths – Set Pieces
Weaknesses – A few too many to count
Major Threat – Luis Tejada, Blas Perez

Los Canaleros are the beneficiary of US failures and a country that will enjoy every second of Russia 2018. Very few expected Panama to even make it to this point, and there will be an even smaller group of people that believe that Panama has any chance of moving beyond the group stage. The craziness of CONCACAF is easy to see from Panama’s qualifying record, but they’ve earned their way to the sport’s grandest stage. If El Tri isn’t going to be your CONCACAF squad at the World Cup, there’s genuinely no risk supporting Panama’s journey.
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Realistic Federation Goal for RUSSIA 2018:

FEPAFUT’s goal has already been accomplished. Merely qualifying is a dream come true for most of the squad and the entirety of the fan-base. However, that makes them tricky customers in Russia. With absolutely nothing to lose and very few giving them a chance, Panama could make the path to the knockout stages tough for several squads. Belgium and England will not want a bumpy road during their Russian excursion, so Panama is perfectly poised to spoil Group G for everyone hoping to wind their way to the knockout rounds. This group will be worth watching simply to see the player and fan reaction when Panama scores their first ever World Cup goal.


DEFENSE:

The defense of Panama has never been a massive issue when the small country is playing international footy. In fact, this squad had the third best defense, better than the United States by a few goals, in CONCACAF qualifying. A country that will probably march into most of their WC matches utilizing a very defensive 5-4-1, it will be interesting to see whether the other teams in the group are able to find the key to weave through Panama’s back-line or if we get to see some upsets occur after Belgium, England, or Tunisia get frustrated.

While some have posed the question of whether Román Torres will get the nod after being on the road to recovering from a knee injury, there should be little doubt. Torres will start unless his leg is ripped in half. The absolutely massive defender is strong in the air, both in defense and attack, and rarely makes mistakes on the biggest stages. The Seattle Sounders squad has been paying the price for Torres being sidelined during the MLS season, showing how vital the central defender is for his teams.

Most likely flanking Torres will be Fidel Escobar and Adolfo Machado. While both aren’t quite as strong in the air as Torres, they will be utilized to plug the passing lanes and make sure that teams have to push extra players forward in order to break the trio down. On the flanks, as is the case for many of the World Cup squads, the potential starter isn’t completely locked down, but we expect Michael Murillo on the right and Eric Davis to line up on the left. Murillo is the youngest defender on the squad, and possibly a future replacement for Torres as he could (probably) be eventually shifted to the center of defense. Having already been given over 20 caps, Murillo will be a defender to watch as some club might decide to pluck him up from the MLS and see what the 22 year old can offer.

As with any team that lines up with five defenders, the majority of the width will be dependent on Murillo or Davis pushing forward. If Belgium and England, squads with multiple talented players that like to sit on the wing, can keep them pushed back, it will seriously cripple an attack that is already going to struggle to score. Depending on which players finally make the 23 man Russia roster, it is unlikely that Panama won’t have a serious drop off in talent if one of their starting defenders has to make way for injury or card accumulation. They will have experience in the 37 year old Felipe Baloy, but they sacrifice quite a bit of speed if they allow the most recent Panama captain to be on the starting sheet.

Panama might be one of the few squads without an obvious first-choice keeper. Despite Jaime Penedo being the first choice for Panama whenever they take part in the Gold Cup, he hasn’t been getting regular playing time with his club in Romania. However, Penedo has four times as many caps as the next keeper on the squad list, and his experience would be far too tempting to leave on the bench when Panama takes part in the biggest moments in the federation’s history.

MIDFIELD

As we’ve already mentioned, Panama likes to hit the field with a very defensive line-up and mindset. Despite already having five defenders, Panama also usually fields two central defensive midfielders. We then will probably see a player playing on the left wing and a midfielder playing behind the striker to try and bridge the passing from the midfield to attack. If you watch a lot of Serie A, then this is a playing style that you should be painfully familiar with seeing.

It’s taken some time studying and watching Panama play to see who they might start, especially since we’re making these calls before they make the final 23 is announced, but our best guess is that Gabriel Gomez and Anibal Godoy will be the likely choices for the defensive midfield pairing. To show you how defensive this pair is, you need to only know that in the last two years (with around a dozen combined starts for the pair), these players have only taken one shot…not one goal, but one shot. They used to play a bit more freely in qualifying, but the last several friendlies (against World Cup level opposition) has seen the pair locked in front of defense and unable to join up with the attack.

With how land-locked the defensive group is, we expect Panama to put Alberto Quintero and Edgar Joel Barcenas as the other two midfield options. While not extremely lethal in front of goal (especially at the international level), they do create and take more chances than anyone that doesn’t bear the name Gabriel Torres or Blas Perez (the two first options for the striker spot during the last half decade). We’d expect Quintero to spend more time outside on the wing and Barcenas to stay more central and try to provide assistance to the lone striker. If Barcenas is seen defending for long stretches of time, expect the Panama striking option to be described as “isolated” around 40 times during the course of the game.

The Panama options for midfield on the subs bench involves a massive amount of youth and some players that might be included for their locker room presence. If a substitution is made in the midfield in an attempt to bolster attack, look for Armando Cooper or maybe Ricardo Buitrago to try and push forward a little bit more. However, much like all of the country’s of Panama’s stature entering the tournament, the drop off from the starting 11 to the bench is stark. While we might see a younger player be a surprise and make his mark while in Russia, it wouldn’t be a safe bet.

Panama's Roman Torres

Roman Torres

STRIKERS

Panama’s greatest struggle has always been in front of goal. Out of the entirety of CONCACAF, only Trinidad & Tobago produced an inferior goal total to Panama’s. Defense is great if you’re looking to avoid relegation, string together one-point performances, and eventually stumble across the finish line. Sadly, this group will be strong enough to have teams with six points or more sneaking into the knockout rounds, so Panama is going to have to try and discover a scoring form that has long eluded them.

For the first match, we expect that Blas Perez will be the name at the top of the team sheet. Despite being the oldest scoring option (and the second oldest player in the whole squad), Perez has been the most consistent goal threat for Panama over the last four years. Considering how infrequently the Panamanian squad scores, it would be tough to keep Perez on the bench in the biggest of fixtures. However, there are two other fairly serviceable options available should Perez not make the starting 11. If it isn’t Perez, look for Gabriel Torres (coming off a good season with his Chilean club) to try and break down some of the best defenses in the world. We might also get to see Luis Tejada, but we’d really just want that so that one of the announcers can remind us that his nickname is the “Matador.”

GAME by GAME (Belgium/England/Tunisia)

Keys to Belgium Game*
The worst part for Panama is that they’ll catch Belgium in the very first fixture for both teams. In order for Panama to really spoil the day, Belgium will need to be desperately reckless for the three points and leave themselves exposed to Panama exploiting opposition mistakes. However, Belgium is going to enter Russia hoping to announce themselves as favorites and make sure that their first fixture gives them all three points without any questions being raised. It would be fun to see Panama get their first ever WC goal here, as I think even the Belgium fans might cheer the goal, but Belgium is one of the few squads with the ability to completely void Panama’s power in the air.
Prediction: Panama 0-4 Belgium

Keys to England Game*
If there’s ever been a team on the international scene to lay an egg against lower opposition, and have their mind completely invaded by doubt, it’s England. If England is unable to get three points against Tunisia, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see them playing tight and devoid of creativity when they step on the field against Panama. Add in England’s occasional propensity to fall asleep on set-pieces, and Panama might be a group that is not remembered very fondly by the fans of the three lions. It’s tough to see England allowing themselves to fall back into old habits, but there’s a reason why people expect certain things to happen to certain squads but we’ll give England a pass here.
Prediction: Panama 1-2 England

Keys to Tunisia Game*
While the world will look at this fixture as Panama’s chance for their first ever World Cup victory, Tunisia possesses a patience that many of the lower-level teams are incapable of sustaining. It wouldn’t be a surprise for Panama to score their first World Cup goal in this fixture, and their ability to take advantage of set-pieces could see them score multiple within the span of 90 minutes. While it would be nice to see CONCACAF get a Cinderella squad in contention for the knockout rounds, Tunisia will enter this game with the same “this is where we can finally get three points,” mentality. Panama makes it a fun fixture, but falls in the end.
Prediction: Tunisia 3-2 Panama

Hernan Dario Gomez

Coach Hernan Dario Gomez

Here’s the likely Panamanian Roster for Russia 2018

GOALKEEPERS (3): Jose Calderon (Chorrillo), Jaime Penedo (Dinamo Bucharest), Alex Rodríguez (San Francisco FC)

DEFENDERS (8): Felipe Baloy (CSD Municipal), Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Eric Davis (Dunajska Streda), Fidel Escobar (New York Red Bulls), Adolfo Machado (Houston Dynamo), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Luis Ovalle (CD Olimpia), Roman Torres (Seattle Sounders)

MIDFIELDERS (7): Ricardo Avila (KAA Gent), Edgar Barcenas (Cafetaleros de Tapachula), Ricardo Buitrago (Municipal), Anibal Godoy (San Jose Earthquakes), Gabriel Gomez (Bucaramanga), Alberto Quintero (Universitario de Lima), Jose Luis Rodríguez (KAA Gent)

FORWARDS (5): Ismael Diaz (Deportivo La Coruna), Jose Fajardo (CA Independiente), Blas Perez (Municipal), Luis Tejada (Sports Boys), Gabriel Torres (CD Huachipato)

Piece by Andrew McCole, frequent Center Circle writer, boot prince, and never walking alone at Liverpool FC.

 

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About the author: Andrew McCole

 

If I may be so bold to condense my immense personality into two words, it would be: soccer nerd. I love everything about the beautiful game and I tend to reflect that in my writing. I suffer through Liverpool fandom and hope that they will win another title before my wife spreads my ashes at Anfield (considering I'm in my twenties, it seems somewhat likely). Although I also dabble in tennis, teaching, and coaching, most of my free-time is spent writing articles for The Center Circle! Feel free to stalk me on Google+

 

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