The Ghost Returns: USA visits Panama eyeing six-point sweep of March World Cup qualifiers

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The U.S. national team has gone from last to fourth place in the Hex, and will be looking for a jump to third with a win in Panama on Tuesday.

Road victories in the Hexagonal round of World Cup qualifying are traditionally tough to come by, but the U.S. national team has made the trip to Panama feeling good about its chances for a variety of reasons.

The Americans are riding a wave of confidence off last week's World Cup qualifying romp over Honduras, and they have arrived in Panama City fully aware that they are unbeaten in six World Cup qualifying meetings with the Canaleros. The most recent of those meetings was a 3-2 victory in 2013 that helped Mexico eventually reach the World Cup while ending Panama's own World Cup dreams.

Despite that track record, the U.S. knows all too well the challenges road qualifiers can present.

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"The away games are always tougher than the home games, especially with the conditions," U.S. midfielder Jermaine Jones said. "It will be hot, the field will maybe be a little bit bumpy, but if we go out and play our own game we showed already in 2013 that we can come here and win a game."

Earning points in Panama has been surprisingly easy for visiting teams in World Cup qualifying through the years. In fact, Panama has won just one of the 11 home Hex matches it has hosted, compiling a 1-6-4 record during that time. The U.S. has won both Hex visits to Panama.

The memories of that 2013 win in Panama aren't likely to mean much to the U.S. team — only four players who played in that match are on the current U.S. roster — but it's clearly on the minds of Panamanians, who were on the verge of qualifying for a place in the 2014 World Cup qualifying playoff, only to see a 2-1 lead turn into a 3-2 loss after a pair of late U.S. goals. That loss devastated the team, and the country, and the haunting memory of that night could be felt on the cover of a local Panamanian newspaper on Monday, which splashed the headline "The Ghost Returns." 

A total of six Panamanians who played in that loss to the United States more than three years ago appeared in the Canaleros' 1-0 loss to Trinidad and Tobago last Friday. That being said, the revenge angle might be a bit overstated considering these teams have faced off three times since then, including Panama's group-stage draw and its penalty shootout victory over the United States in the third-place match of the 2015 Gold Cup.

"We have to understand that it's going to be a very difficult game here on Tuesday night and we have the mentality that we need more points," U.S. captain Michael Bradley said. "We want three, and we're going to play in a way where we give ourselves a real chance to win the game.

"If, in the end, it means that we take one then so be it, but we've got to follow up the good performance on Friday with another one here on Tuesday night."

While the Americans are feeling good after their emphatic win in San Jose, California, Panama has returned to Central America having a dropped a 1-0 decision on the road against Trinidad and Tobago. That defeat has dropped Panama into fifth place in the Hex, which should lead to an added sense of urgency for the Canaleros.

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"The result the other night won't sit well with them," Bradley said. "We expect that, playing at home, they'll come out and really be aggressive and try to use the support to tilt the bar in their favor. We know them pretty well, both in terms of playing against them as a national team many over the years, and obviously the other part to it now is a lot of their players play in MLS, and are teammates and opponents of ours on a weekly basis. 

"We have a lot of respect for them. They have a unique and interesting blend of skill and athleticism that always challenges us in a big way."

The departures of John Brooks (sinus infection) and Sebastian Lletget (left foot sprain) will force Bruce Arena to change up his lineup, though the return of Jones from suspension should help address one of those departures. Arena will need to choose between Tim Ream and Matt Besler to step in for Brooks, while also considering how he will adjust his midfield to accommodate for the shift from Lletget to Jones, assuming Arena chooses Jones over someone like veteran Alejandro Bedoya.

Whoever Arena settles on as starters will take the field in Panama knowing that a win would suddenly propel the U.S. into third place in the World Cup qualifying standings, a considerable upgrade from last place, where the American sat just four days ago.

"We feel good about things. It's been a good week," Bradley said. "Obviously we all understand that just because we've had one good result doesn't mean that we're out of the woods yet."

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