Ian Darke will be the voice of another big American soccer occasion Friday night. He has ESPN2's call of the crucial U.S. men's national team's World Cup qualifier against Panama, alongside analyst Taylor Twellman, reporters Julie Stewart-Binks and Sebastian Salazar, and a studio crew of host Max Bretos and analysts Kasey Keller and Hérculez Gómez. Pregame coverage starts at 7 p.m. Eastern. Kickoff is set for 7:35.
I chatted with Darke as he made his way through a packed schedule of practices, press conferences and production meetings in Orlando ahead of the game.
There have been a lot of reports from Orlando in recent days that things seem pretty tense down there. What do you see?
Yeah, I think there's some anxiety around the camp. I think it showed with that statement that came out from Bruce Arena, via U.S. Soccer [on Twitter and other platforms], like a rallying call.
That seemed — not unprecedented, but pretty unusual. He said himself at the press conference [Thursday] here that this is not a normal fixture, and the players know it, and it's up to them to produce the performance that reflects the situation they're in.
While I was writing my preview of the game for Friday's Inquirer, I noticed that it's been a while since the U.S. has beaten Panama in a game of consequence. The two games this year were 1-1 ties. Do you think some of the American fans out there maybe underrate CONCACAF teams a little bit, and figure that because the U.S. is the U.S., it should walk over them every time?
Absolutely. I think that as well. I think the expectation levels around the U.S. have been too high, generally, in recent years.
I also think that there is a change of standards within CONCACAF. You saw it with Costa Rica reaching the quarterfinals of the World Cup the last time out [in 2014]. And I think what has happened is that Panama have come out of the also-ran group, if you like, and now have become a fairly major force. So you've now got five teams, really: Mexico, Honduras, Costa Rica, the USA and now Panama as well.
In fact, you said the last two games have been 1-1 — in fact, the last four [competitive] games have been 1-1*. This is a team that's mighty tough to break down, very experienced, very well-marshaled, very gritty — and with a huge amount to play for. This is a mighty tough game, no two ways about it.
I think the biggest danger for the U.S. — and I don't think this extends to the players, but it certainly does to the fans, I think — is this complacent belief that it will always be all right on the night, because it always has been since 1990. But a lot of good teams have failed to qualify for the World Cup in the past, and nobody has got a divine right. It has to be earned.
[*- A Gold Cup group stage game this summer, the World Cup qualifier in Panama this year, the Gold Cup third-place game in 2015 (which was decided by penalty kicks after a 1-1 draw, and a group stage game in that same tournament.]
As you mentioned, past games between these teams have shown that Panama likes to pack it in defensively, and play to frustrate. If you're on the U.S. side of the field, how do you keep your head on straight and not let it get to you?
It certainly can. I'm sure it's a point Bruce Arena will make, and I'm sure the Panamanian coach [Hernán Darío Gómez] is going to make exactly the same point. You do not want it spilling over into a red card, because the game is hard enough without trying to play with 10 men. It's vital that the players keep the lid on that, and they give a disciplined, professional performance.
And I think really, from the U.S. point of view, they've got to be nice and solid, patient as well, but play with lots of width and high tempo. It's got to be high tempo to break down what you think would be the massed ranks of the opposing defense.
Panama is playing for the point. You know how it's going to be. They're looking to be intimidating, they're looking to break up the play, be physical. The good thing is the U.S. know exactly what they're up against here. You hope they've planned accordingly, and in this hour of need can really produce their best performance at what has been a very difficult Hex for them.
If you were to pick a U.S. player who you think would the most be likely to break through Panama's defense, whom would you go for?
You'd have to say Christian Pulisic, because he is an exciting young player. He was kind of shut out of the game, occasionally manhandled by Costa Rica [in September]. They did a number on him and stopped him from playing. You can bet your bottom dollar that Panama will try to do the same thing. Because they know he is a player who can go past people and make things happen. So you'd look to him.
The other interesting pick in this squad — whether he gets a look in, I don't know, or whether he's just on the bench — is Benny Feilhaber, who hasn't played a competitive game for the U.S. since the 2010 World Cup. But he's a creative spark, and I think that's why Arena has picked him as a possible option if they are struggling to break Panama down. Maybe to bring him on later in the game.
He is a pick-the-locks kind of player. You just hope, maybe, this is a chance for him, quite late in the day, to put his name up in lights.
What do you see Clint Dempsey's role being?
Well, Dempsey is an interesting one. We don't know the team, obviously — they're keeping that pretty close to their chest. Whether he starts or not, I don't know. But he has scored three in his last four appearances against Panama. Here's the guy who's your all-time record scorer. All I'm going to say about that is, it would be a big, big call not to start him in a game as important as this.
There's no certainty anymore, though, that he is a 90-minute player at the international level.
I think there is a belief that Dempsey's future with the team — for what little time he has left as an international player — will probably be as a super sub. But this is a one-off game, almost, here.
Bruce Arena was saying he hasn't even thought about the Trinidad & Tobago game [on Tuesday], just this one. So they're picking a team here to win this game, and I'm talking about from the start.
It would be, to me, a big surprise if Clint Dempsey — with all his know-how, all his experience, and his proven level of goal-scoring — not to have him in this team. So in that case, it would have to be one of Bobby Wood or Jozy Altidore who's left out.
And incidentally, Altidore hasn't scored yet in this Hex. Wood had a great bit of finishing against Honduras [on the road] that got the U.S. out of jail. So the pick will be interesting. We'll know soon enough.
You mentioned the combination of Altidore and Wood. They've played together 15 times now, and the U.S. has lost seven of them. Three of those losses have come in the Hex: the home games vs. Mexico last year and Costa Rica this year, and the road game at Costa Rica last year.
Four of the six wins came in 2016, but they were two World Cup qualifiers against lowly St. Vincent & The Grenadines, the first-round home qualifier vs. Trinidad & Tobago, and the friendly at Cuba.
Do you think there's anything to that in terms of something not working?
Well, you never want to label it on individual players, because if you lose football matches, there are usually a lot of factors. So, no, I wouldn't say it's because Altidore and Wood started that those games were lost. I think that's probably going to be too simplistic.
But to widen it out, and to broaden your point, I think the big problem for the U.S. in this group — and with the team generally — is they are letting in too many goals. They've scored more goals than Mexico, who've qualified, but they've let in a lot more.
I think at the heart of that is an ever-changing defense. They don't know what the best back line is. And there's not a rottweiler in that midfield. They're playing Michael Bradley in front [of the back line] as a shield, but that really isn't him. He's a more creative type. They want somebody with more bite in there. Somebody like a 28-year-old version of Kyle Beckerman would be ideal.
That team is missing that rottweiler character, I think, and that's another factor in all of this.
Some people say Jermaine Jones could be that guy. But sometimes he bites too hard, and he has a history of not playing all that well with Bradley.