Team USA
USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and goalkeeper, Nick Rimando, talk about team USA's match against Panama on Sunday, February 8th at StubHub Center in Carson, CA. Latin Times / Michael Duarte

The United States Men’s National Soccer team opened up camp last month with a number of fresh new faces. Will Trapp, Dillon Serna, Gyasi Zardes, Lee Nguyen and Miguel Ibarra joined veterans Clint Dempsey, Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley in the strenuous soccer tryout that is the Winter camp.

As a new World Cup cycle starts for the United States, a new aura of excitement and expectations has begun in this country for the sport known as “the beautiful game.” Thus far, those expectations have not been met as the USMNT has gone winless in their last five international matches after a 1-0 victory over Czech Republic in their first game post-Brazil.

International matches at this stage are seemingly meaningless, and are used more as evaluation tools for younger players and newcomers to the roster. However, with the prosperous results in Brazil during the 2014 World Cup, the USMNT want to show the nation progress and build upon the momentum that was captured in Brazil.

“You have to be patient,” said Altidore about the national team’s performance over the past few months. “But at the same time you do have to produce some better soccer.”

Adding to the frustration for head coach Jurgen Klinsmann and others surrounding the USMNT is the ever-increasing number of MLS players that have joined the revamped roster. Unfortunately, for most of those players, their MLS season ended in October and they’ve been in offseason mode for months.

“A lot of these guys are still in preseason and you cant suddenly put this pressure on them to produce mid season type of plays,” added Altidore.

The lack of conditioning and fitness shown on the pitch during Chile’s second half comeback against the USA last week prompted the outspoken Klinsmann to suggest that the MLS extend their spring to fall season to 11 months like most international leagues do. Klinsmann’s suggestion prompted immediate chatter amongst American soccer circles and on Saturday ahead of their friendly match against Panama, many of the current MLS stars on USA weighed in:

“You see around the world how long their seasons are and how continuous they play,” said Team USA’s starting goalkeeper, Nick Rimando. “For us, if you don’t go to the MLS final and are out in the early stages, there is a long break and I can see how players get out of shape and aren’t the sharpest. For us, it’s about being professionals and being as sharp as you can.”

Indeed the onus is on the players to maintain their conditioning level throughout the offseason and to translate that to performance on the pitch, but many MLS players we spoke to would actually be in favor of extending the season, although they could not outwardly express those sentiments.

“It’s not my place to answer,” said MLS MVP finalist, Lee Nguyen. “But a change could be good. We’ll see however it goes.”

For some players heading into their meeting with Panama at the StubHub Center in Carson on Sunday, the fact that they have a small window to impress coach Klinsmann and stay on the USMNT permanently is motivation enough. One of those players is Los Angeles Galaxy forward, Gyasi Zardes, who is making his first appearance with team USA and fortunately for Zardes, the Stars and Stripes first home match will be in his backyard.

Zardes grew up in nearby Hawthorne and always dreamed as a kid that he would one day play for the national team. He plays his home games at the StubHub Center with the Galaxy and credits his teammates for giving him the confidence to play with some of the best soccer players in the world.

“I’ve played with Landon Donovan, Omar Gonzalez, Robbie Keane, guys who are phenomenal players,” said Zardes. “Being in that environment every day helps me grow as a player. You always have confidence stepping on your home turf.”

Panama poses a serious threat to the US on the pitch as they have grown in talent over the past decade. The once laughing stock of the CONCACAF division finished second in the Gold Cup in 2013 and nearly beat team USA in the final World Cup qualifier in October of that year. Panama had a 2-1 lead at the end of regulation before Sporting KC’s Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson both scored in stoppage time to give the US the win and eliminate Panama’s chances of going to the World Cup.

Los Canaleros has played well since, winning three of their last four matches heading into the clash with team USA on Sunday. Nearly half a dozen members of the Gold Cup squad returns for revenge and Panama will start LA Galaxy goalkeeper, Jamie Penedo, in net on his home turf during the match. The 33-year old Penedo is familiar with the large playing field as well as the players on the opposing side and believes that the home field advantage will help him react to how the ball plays in certain areas of the pitch.

Look for Klinsmann to continue to play with the formations and strategies of the team as he did in the loss to Chile. Klinsmann started that match with a new 3-5-2 formation before reverting back to 4-4-2 in the second half. Tomorrow’s match should hinge on the play of midfielder Michael Bradley and the offensive attack of Altidore and Dempsey.

“We want to start off well on our home soil with a win tomorrow,” said Klinsmann. “It will be a good field, a good crowd and it will be a good challenge for us, a good benchmark for us.”

Expect a lot of substitutions, experimentation and scoring from both sides tomorrow as we expect there to be at least three goals scored in the match. The weather should be nice and sunny in Southern California tomorrow and the game has still not sold out as of yet. Kick off is set for 4:00PM EST (1:00 PST) and the game can be viewed live on ESPN and UniMas. If you can’t get to a television, you can livestream the game from your computer, tablet or smart phone here.

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