Panama ready for its Argentina moment

Panama head coach Hernan Dario Gomez (pictured) answers questions at a press conference on June 9, 2016, in Chicago. (Photo: Mexsport)

CHICAGO – Over the course of the last decade or so, Panama has made huge strides in CONCACAF.

It was the runner-up in a pair of Gold Cups (2005, 2013) and finished third in the competition last year. Each of those three momentous occasions came in matches against the United States.

After becoming the first team to win in its Copa America debut since 1921, with a 2-1 triumph over Bolivia on June 6, Panama hopes to make another mark Friday, when it meets Argentina at Soldier Field.

Another win – especially against the No. 1 ranked team in the world according to FIFA – could change everything for the emerging footballing nation.

“We’re ready and we have a very acute and accurate team,” head coach Hernan Dario Gomez said at a Thursday press conference. “Panama is very proud to see its team playing with the biggest teams. It’s a historic game for us. Even if history doesn’t favor us, it’s still history.”

The Panamanians are an experienced group seasoned together by numerous Gold Cup campaigns. Forward Blas Perez, 35, scored both goals against Bolivia and has netted at least once in five straight editions of the biennial CONCACAF event. Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, 34, won the Golden Glove award at the 2005 and 2013 Gold Cups, while Luis Tejada, 34, is the nation’s all-time leading scorer with 42 goals to his credit, including 10 in Gold Cup play.

“The (2015) CONCACAF Gold Cup was a very important tournament for us, we almost got the title,” Gomez remarked on why his team has been the recipient of increased respect. “I talk to a lot of coaches. Our team is orderly, has a style and is experienced. We have a lot of young players also. It grabs your attention. We are one of the youngest teams, not only in terms of how long it has been around as a football team, attending CONCACAF and Gold Cup tournaments, but in terms of youth. There are things that need to be valued and appreciated in respect to our team.”

From a youth perspective, forward Abdiel Arroyo, 22, assisted on Perez’s second goal against Bolivia and appears ready to assume a larger role with the side. Midfielders Miguel Camargo (22) and Valentin Pimentel (25), plus defender Roderick Miller (24) and Luis Escobar (22), represent a bright future.

Regardless of age, quality – in terms of talent and performance -- is what matters when you play Argentina. No one knows that better than Gomez, a former Colombia national team manager.

“It’s an incredibly well-conditioned team,” remarked the 60-year-old about Argentina. “It’s a favorite to get this title. Every time you play Argentina, you know how they play. They see an opening and they want to score a goal. They do that regardless of their opponent. They’re interested in playing in their own game. They have their own style.”

What will Panama need to do in order to win?

Gomez said: “We have to be very-well focused, concentrated, paying attention and to the extent that we can, try to impose our style of play. Argentina forces you to play in their style. We’ll try not to play the game that they want us to play.”

In the final analysis, Gomez trusts that we’ll see the best of his team.

“I’m extremely proud to see the Panamanian jersey playing Argentina in an official tournament,” he finished. “I know that we will rise up to the moment.”