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World Cup Qualifying: USMNT vs. Panama Could be a Pain in the Grass

United States v Jamaica - FIFA 2014 World Cup QualifierRooting for the United States National (soccer) Team is always going to come with some strings attached. For instance, aside from when the team plays Mexico, it’s hard to exactly gloat when the team manages wins against the rest of the CONCACAF. The U.S. has more resources and population — two of the biggest factors in international soccer success — so when the team beats, say, Bermuda as an American fan you really can’t rub it in against the opposing fans. (Obviously you could, but you just end up looking like a dick, which is your right since this is a free country.)

At the same time unlike most international team sports, the U.S. remains a decided underdog once it steps outside the shallow waters of CONCACAF, creating a bit of a contradiction.

With these two forces at work, throughout its history the U.S. Soccer has always seemed to wear the “white hat. ” Maybe it’s a product of the American soccer culture, but you’ve rarely seen U.S. players feigning injury or simulating fouls inside the penalty area. Nor do you often seen the Americans try negative tactics like time-wasting. Sure there have been hard-tackling players in the American shirt, such as Pablo Mastroeni, but when he picked up a red card it was because of his “heart” and commitment to the stars and stripes, right? He wasn’t painted as a villain like when Daniele De Rossi elbowed Brian McBride during the 2006 World Cup group stages or when Leonardo fractured Tab Ramos’ skull at the 1994 World Cup.

U.S. Soccer has maintained a bit of moral superiority over most of CONCACAF. When opponents travel here they aren’t the target of bags of human excrement from the bleachers. Americans don’t hold all-night dance parties outside the opposing team’s hotel to try to keep them awake.

[Related: USMNT: Three Precious Points for Klinsmann’s Crew No Matter How They Got Them]

Some, if only a little, of that superiority might be lost after Tuesday night’s World Cup qualifier against Panama at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (ESPN, 10 p.m.). The reason? In order to bring a qualifier to soccer-rabid Seattle, a temporary $100,000 grass field over the artificial turf. The Sounders and Whitecaps played an MLS game on it over the weekend, which one player labeled “ridiculously terrible.”

This wasn’t done with nefarious intent. The USSF isn’t overtly trying to screw over Panama by playing on a purposely crappy surface, yet the U.S. (and its media) won’t be able to call out the less-than-perfect fields of Central America as an excuse down the road. (Jurgen Klinsmann and Clint Dempsey both said the field was okay during a press conference on Monday, so it’s settled.)

Don’t forget this is only the second qualifier on American soil. The first was the snow game in Denver, which by all accounts shouldn’t have gone on as scheduled. It might be through artificial means, but the U.S. finally seems to have its homefield advantage.

As for the game itself? Perhaps all the talk about the field is because the U.S. stabilized itself with three points vs. Jamaica late Friday night to give them seven through four games. If Klinsmann’s team can win tonight vs. Panama and follow it up with another vs. Honduras next week in Utah, they’ll have one foot firmly in Brazil. Two wins won’t guarantee a spot in next summer’s World Cup, but it will take some pressure off the remaining four matches later this year, which include a potentially tricky trip to Costa Rica as well as the return match vs. Mexico on Sept. 10 in Columbus.

If you’re scoring at home, the U.S. is 21-0-2 in its last 23 home World Cup Qualifiers dating back to 2001. The last team to win on American soil … Honduras back in September 2001 at RFK.

Miscellania: 

What will Jurgen Wear?: Say what you will about the German, but he’s certainly the most sartorial coach the U.S. have ever had on the touchline. (Sorry, Bruce Arena.) In Jamaica on Friday Klinsmann wore his sexy shirt. What will he do for an encore? Perhaps a U-S-A themed outfit based off what David Lee Roth wore in the video for “Panama”? We can only hope.

Two is Enough: It took until his 27th and 28th matches, but Klinsmann finally went back-to-back matches with the same starting XI. The streak ends at two. Graham Zusi is out through yellow card accumulation. (Two yellows equaling a suspension seems awfully harsh.) Jermaine Jones will miss out with a concussion. The U.S. looked comfortable and, more importantly, balanced playing in a 4-2-3-1. Will Klinsmann swap in like-for-like replacements or juggle the entire formation? Keep in mind DaMarcus Beasley, Michael Bradley, Matt Besler, Brad Davis, Clint Dempsey, Brad Evans and Fabian Johnson are each a yellow card away from missing next week’s game with Honduras.

Who’s No. 1?: The happiest man after Brad Evan’s stoppage-time winner in Kingston? Probably Tim Howard, who’d been caught flat-footed on Jermaine Beckford’s equalizing header minutes earlier. Flat-footed might be an understatement. Howard didn’t even move to attempt a save. It’s Howard’s job in goal, for now. As much turmoil as Klinsmann’s lineup changes have caused, swapping out Howard for Guzan is a move that you can’t go back from. Once you make it, that’s how you have to go moving forward. There’s no flip-flopping when it comes to international keepers.

Lineup Guess: (4-2-3-1)

GK — Howard

DEF — Evans — Gonzalez — Besler — Beasley

MID — E. Johnson — Bradley — Dempsey — Cameron — F. Johnson

FOR — Altidore

Prediction: Panama was the reverse of the U.S., playing three of its first four qualifiers at home. It’ll also be without its top scorer, Blas Perez who didn’t make the trip to the States. Should the U.S. win here, making in three in a row, maybe just maybe Klinsmann & Co. have turned a corner. The squad has looked a lot better. A loud, receptive crowd in Seattle should help buoy them to a third straight win. … United States 2, Panama 0

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