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World Cup Qualifiers

WCQ: The Panama City Deja Vu Boogaloo

ORLANDO, FL - OCTOBER 06: Christian Pulisic #10 of the United States reacts after scoring a goal during the final round qualifying match against Panama for the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Orlando City Stadium on October 6, 2017 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

The Estadio Rommel Fernandez is a 45,000 seat cauldron located in the heart of Panama City, Panama, the nation’s capital. It is home of the eminent club powerhouse Tauro FC, but it is also the home of the Canaleros, Panama’s embattled national team under the direction of Hernan Gomez. When it is on it’s day, Rommel is a house of pain, built to provide a strong fortress against worthy opposition. But other times, Panama’s national stadium is a house of heartbreak. Exhibit A, below.

Four years ago, on the final match day of the Hexagonal, a Panama win over the USA would have seen Mexico eliminated from the FIFA World Cup. But in a controversial move that may have led to the deserved sacking of Jurgen Klinsmann, the USA scored two late goals to eliminate Panama from fourth place. Fast forward to Oct. 9, 2017, at this same stadium.

Panama currently sit fourth in the Fifth Round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifiers of CONCACAF. They face a Costa Rica side that have qualified for the FIFA World Cup after a 1-1 draw with Honduras. Not too far away in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, Mexico, who have already qualified for the FIFA World Cup, are poised to finish their qualification run with a straightforward win against the Catrachos. A Mexico victory will not be enough to ensure Panama’s safety.

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Across the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea is the small town of Couva, on the island of Trinidad, and the Ato Boldon Stadium, named after one of Trinidad and Tobago’s legendary sporting heroes and loyal servants. The United States men’s national team under Bruce Arena knows that a draw will be enough for the Nats to return to the FIFA World Cup Finals after a largely disappointing run marred by a continued lack of form against Costa Rica, one that will surely trigger a search for a new manager at the end of this cycle.

The pressure is not as massive as in 1989, where they needed a Shot Heard Round The World from Eric Wynalda to save them from elimination. Their 4-0 breakthrough victory over Panama, a result born out of despondent desperation, has increased the margin for error. But putting a wager on Costa Rica and Mexico helping the USA in this case is a stretch, and the Stars and Stripes are determined to seal the deal on their own terms and not anyone else’s. Just the way old Bruce himself wants it.

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That goes back to the needles-and-pins situation at Rommel Fernandez. With Mexico poised to rout Honduras, and the USA focused on putting the Soca Warriors to the sword early and often through their own Kylian Mbappe-style prince in Christian Pulisic, an upset by Panama over Costa Rica would see them stay in fourth. And if the USA and Mexico win, it really would make no difference, the Canaleros will finally get their playoff chance. The question for the Ticos is figure out who they choose to help on the final match day. There will be fans with their phones getting updates on all three matches starting and finishing at the same time.

Should Panama end up in the playoffs, they would match up better against Syria, a rising star in West Asia that is playing the game with heavy hearts but is guided by the forces that be to a brighter dawn on the horizon. If Panama face Australia, this is where the road will likely end. Australia were unfortunate to not get the help they needed from Japan on the last day of the third round of the Asian Qualifiers and will take no chances in finishing off a Panama team that, for all intents and purposes, is cursed by a deja vu boogaloo.

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