A new travel philosophy 

January, 23, 2012

To the several differences from past January camps -- a new coach, a Champions League player wearing the captain's armband, training time divided between Phoenix and L.A. -- add this one: a road trip to Central America for a friendly.

Wednesday's away game against Panama is a rarity for this time of year. The lull in the U.S. soccer calendar has, for most of the past decade, been a chance for U.S. coaches to evaluate MLS prospects during three weeks of hard training followed by a home friendly against a team from CONCACAF or Scandinavia. It's been a chance for players to shine, with little outside pressure.

But the match in Panama City will be an opportunity for players and coaches to get a taste of playing in the type of environment that, during CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, is decidedly unfriendly. The Yanks' second road qualifying match this year, after a June 8 game against Antigua and Barbuda, is June 12 in Guatemala. The U.S. is 2-4-3 all time in Guatemala, and though it hasn't lost there since 1988, grinding out a result will be critical for a smooth first round of qualifying. And in Central America, results don't come easily, regardless of what the FIFA Rankings might suggest.

The last time the Yanks played in Panama, in a 3-0 World Cup qualifying victory in 2005, the fans did their best to make things difficult, including initiating chants of "Osama." Those circumstances are not unusual in regional away matches, where fans have been known to hurl not just invective, but also coins, bottles and beer, both in its original and metabolized states (urine).

Luke Cyphers is a former senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Doug McIntyre is a staff writer for ESPN The Magazine. He has covered American and international soccer since 2002.