USA prepares to face a Panama side missing Blas Perez

Minus its best attacker, Panama will take on a U.S. defense that is starting to congeal into a steady back line.
SEATTLE – An inexperienced U.S. back line that hasn't kept a clean sheet for three games received some positive news ahead of the World Cup qualifier against Panama.

Striker Blas Perez didn't make the trip to Seattle ahead of Tuesday's match as he's suffering from gastroenteritis. The FC Dallas front man played 70 minutes in a 0-0 draw with Mexico on Friday, but withdrew ahead of the U.S. game.

“He's one of their key men,” goalkeeper Tim Howard pointed out.

Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes, himself a former striker for Paris Saint-Germain and Malaga, tends to shuffle through his forward pack. Aside from Perez, he can lean on Luis Tejada, the country's all-time leading goalscorer.

“We all know that Blas Perez is kind of the focal point for their attack, but they have a lot more talent too other than him,” defender Matt Besler said.

Los Canaleros led the Hexagonal prior to this month's qualifiers, and the Americans know what to expect having faced Panama twice in the 2011 Gold Cup. Additionally, the United States beat Panama in a January 2012 friendly, with Graham Zusi scoring the only goal.

“Similar to Jamaica, they match us physically, which obviously is tough for us,” Howard said. “We'll try and figure that out.”

The U.S. defense is also beginning to take form. A steady back five of Howard, Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Besler and DaMarcus Beasley will likely start a third game in a row. Gonzalez and Besler also formed the central pairing when the Yanks earned a credible 0-0 draw against Mexico in Azteca in March.

“We're confident and we found some consistency the last couple games,” Belser said. “But we're not settled at all. It's still a work in progress and we're going to work at it every practice out here and every game to try to get better.”

The next test comes against Panama, shorn of its best attacker, on Tuesday.

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