But on Panama’s side, there’s a different feeling. There’s a chance to realize a dream that a country of 4 million has shared for 40 years: officially qualifying for soccer’s grandest stage.
In 10 previous attempts, Panama has never made it to the World Cup, instead watching Mexico and the United States dominate CONCACAF for the past quarter-century. But this time, Panama believes it has its greatest team yet, and one of its key pieces is goalkeeper Jaime Penedo.
For Penedo, not only is this his best chance at the World Cup, but at 36 years old, it’s also probably his last chance. His task is straightforward: If he can lift his nation to victory over the Americans, Panama will be in the World Cup, a feat Penedo has said would be his greatest honor.
Here’s what you need to know about Jaime Penedo.
1. He’s a Proud Christian
Penedo doesn’t get on his Twitter account very often, but when he does, there’s a good chance he’s going to post a Bible verse in his tweet. When his club team, Dinamo Bucuresti, won the final Cupa Ligii in May of 2017, he posted a message thanking his fans and referencing the 16th Psalm, which begins with the line, “Preserve me, O God, for in thee do I put my trust.”
His Twitter account leads with the phrase “El Tiempo de Dios es perfecto para el que Cree”, which translates to, “The time of God is perfect for the believer.”
2. He’s Won an MLS Championship
United States coach Bruce Arena is certainly familiar with Penedo, because the former was the latter’s coach in MLS when Penedo helped the Galaxy to the 2014 MLS championship, making five saves as Los Angeles became the first team in MLS history to win five MLS titles.
The relationship ended in 2015 when the team and the player agreed by mutual consent that Penedo would leave. Since his departure, the Galaxy have not made it past the Western Conference semifinals. Even though he regretted the timing of his departure, Penedo was nothing but complementary on his way out of Los Angeles, thanking fans, players, coaches and stadium employees in both Spanish and English.
3. He Currently Plays in Romania
Following his departure from the Galaxy, Penedo first moved to Costa Rican club Saprissa before relocating to Romania and joining Dinamo Bucuresti of Romania’s top division. The move marks the second time that he’s played in Europe in his career, having spent one season in the Spanish second division with Osasuna B. In the process, he acquired a Spanish passport, making it easier for him to play in European leagues.
Despite that, he’s spent most of his career in Central America. His greatest success at the club level came between 2008 and 2011, where he won four season titles with CSD Municipal of Guatemala. At the national team level, his success came in 2009, when Panama claimed the Copa Centroamericana over Costa Rica for its first title of any kind. In that match, Penedo played the hero, shutting out Costa Rica for 120 minutes and making a crucial save in the penalty shootout.
4. He Missed Two Matches in September With an Injury
Friday’s match with the United States marked his first match with the national team since coming back from a quadriceps injury. Penedo’s injury to his right thigh kept him on the sidelines during the entirety of the Gold Cup, which saw Panama exit in the quarterfinals after drawing with the United States in the group stage, as well as for qualifiers against Mexico and Trinidad and Tobago.
The Canaleros powered through losing Penedo and earned a split in September by beating Trinidad and Tobago, putting them in their current position of third place in CONCACAF. With 10 points, Panama sits one point ahead of the United States with two matches remaning in the final qualifying round.
5. He’s a Community-Minded Person
Even though he holds a Spanish passport and plays his soccer in Romania, Panama is never far from Penedo’s heart. He was born in the capital city, and today, he has a foundation that aims at giving disadvantaged youth in the country the space and equipment they need in order to pursue athletic endeavors.
Despite a relatively strong GDP, as much as 28 percent of Panama’s population is classified as either “poor” or “very poor”. Through his foundation, which he started in May, Penedo hopes to give the next generation of Panama an opportunity to better their own lives.
Details of Penedo’s current contract are not available, but his last known contract with Saprissa had him making $2.5 million, suggesting that he has the resources necessary to make his off-field dream of helping kids in his hometown a reality.