Panama aims to go the distance, give its fans more reason to be proud

By Michael Lewis

CHICAGO -- At about 4 p.m. ET on Sunday, all of Panama is expected to come to a standstill as 3.6 million people will hold their collective breaths for at least two hours.

Their heroes will try to make some history in an attempt to win the CONCACAF Gold Cup for the first time as they tussle with the United States at Soldier Field.

Only three countries have paraded the coveted trophy through the tournament’s first 11 editions years -- Mexico (six times), the U.S. (four times) and Canada (once).

No Central American team has accomplished that feat, although Honduras (1991), Costa Rica (2002) and Panama (2005) have reached the championship game. Besides, Panama head coach Julio Dely Valdes subscribes to the theory that there is a first time for everything.

"Lifting the trophy would the perfect game, independent on how we play," Valdes said at a press conference on Saturday afternoon. "That's the maximum goal, the objective here. Even if we play very, very bad, but we lift it, but that would be the perfect game."

And give the country great joy.

"The country is happy," 20-year-old midfielder Jairo Jimenez said about the team's unbeaten 4-1-0 record entering Sunday's match. "The victories are also for them because they deserve it. Now we want to give them even greater happiness by winning the cup."

Panama has relied on a solid defense in front of goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, a veteran of five Gold Cup tournaments. The Canaleros have surrendered only three goals in five matches, which includes a pair of 2-1 wins over Mexico.

“It will be tough, but we’re here to win it,” Jimenez added. “We’ve had to face every single match like it’s a final.”

Dely Valdes said that he doesn't plan on changing his defensive tactics for the Americans, who have outscored their foes, 19-4, en route to a perfect 5-0-0 mark.

"We're going to try not to change many things," he said. "You can't really change anything drastically at this point. We have to continue to be the same since that has gotten us this far. But we also know the U.S., the team that we're facing tomorrow also is unlike previous games that we played against them."

But some of those previous Gold Cup confrontations have been close affairs. In the 2005 final, the United State prevailed on penalty kicks, 3-1, after the two sides played to a scoreless draw in regulation and extratime.

Valdes directed the 2005 team, while his twin brother, played on it. He feels that this year’s squad is a better side.

 “I think we have more strength as a team,” he said. “Two national teams were and are very strong. But within the team there's lot of unity. We're all heading in the same direction. I would say that was the minor difference between the two.”

Valdes would like to see one other difference – a major one. Instead of watching the Americans earn winners’ medals, he would love to see his players hoist the cup, make some history and give his countrymen back home something really, really big to celebrate.