SAN JOSE, Calif. — After enduring almost a year away from the game, Harold Cummings has made it to the pinnacle of the sport. The central defender will represent Panama in the nation’s first FIFA World Cup finals appearance.
Cummings made his debut for Panama back in 2010 and has earned more than 50 caps since. He missed out on helping Panama navigate the last round of Concacaf qualifying because a season-ending leg injury he suffered in March 2017, just as the San Jose Earthquakes’ MLS campaign was about to kick off, kept him off the field for almost an entire year.
But Cummings persevered, working his way back to health and preparing himself for a return to action. He has started 10 games this season for the Quakes. Now, finally back to full fitness, he is ready to go should Panama head coach Hernán Darío Gómez call on him in Russia.
“First of all, he is a bull,” Earthquakes head coach Mikael Stahre told Pro Soccer USA. “He’s really strong and has a great fighting mentality. He is strong in duels, in the air and on the ground. He came in quite unfit after sitting out for almost a year, but he quickly improved and his performances now are, obviously, good enough for the national team. He is a top centerback in our league, from my perspective.”
Cummings is not expected to be a starter for Los Canaleros in Russia — his Quakes’ teammate Anibal Godoy is slated to start the opener — but he could play an important role off the bench as Panama navigates a difficult Group G, which includes Belgium, England, and Tunisia. They open against Belgium, the group favorites, Monday and they’ll have to be beyond resilient to advance in their World Cup debut.
“I reminded them that even though they are playing Belgium first, and perhaps you go down 1-0, 2-0, that’s alright, don’t let it get to you because you don’t lose it in the first game,” San Jose teammate Chris Wondolowski said he told Cummings and Godoy. “It’s a World Cup, and you can lose a game in the group stage and still advance.”
Panama features six players from MLS on its 23-man World Cup roster, including team captain Romain Torres of the Seattle Sounders, and the in-form contingent will be leaned on to carry the underdogs forward in the tournament. It is a challenge that Stahre knows will be daunting, but he can also appreciate that Panama knows what needs to be done on both sides of the ball.
“I watched some of the games in the lead up to the World Cup,” Stahre said. “To have a chance against the extremely strong opponents in their group, they have to be very strong on defense. Panama has some good offensive players, too, and they will need to do well because you can’t only rely on your defense for the entire game. They’ll need to find a way to be creative because you can’t just sit back and wait for the whistle.”
Wondolowski, who saw first-hand in 2014 how difficult it can be to up against the big boys of world soccer, is encouraged by what he has seen of Cummings in San Jose, and he projects that if the centerback is called upon in Russia, he has what it takes to do more than stand toe-to-toe with the best attackers in the group.
“He is a great organizer in the back,” Wondolowski said. “He is intimidating looking and very strong out there in his physicality, but he also reads the game really well. That is something that, if he plays, they can look forward to.”
Cummings is one of the most liked players on the Earthquakes. He leads by both voice and example throughout training sessions and games. He has a calmness in his demeanor, one that should allow him to block out the distractions of playing on the biggest stage, and his positivity will be an asset to the Panamanians in Russia.
Wondolowski smiled when recalling his own World Cup experience from four years ago in Brazil, where the U.S. national team made a stirring run to the knockout round of the tournament before bowing out to Belgium. Before Cummings and Godoy departed San Jose to join up with Panama, he gave them some advice on how to take in the entirety of the World Cup.
“Yes, I shared a couple things,” Wondolowski said. “One, make sure to enjoy it and immerse yourself in the experience. Try to remember everything you can, because it happens to fast, and it can be a blur. It’s hard, of course, because you are there to play and there are so many games. It doesn’t necessarily sink in until afterwards, so try to remember everything.”
He recalled how the playing the of national anthems is one of the moments he will never forget, with the crowded stadiums singing along at full volume. He remains disappointed that the U.S. will not get its opportunity to play in Russia, but he admitted he’ll be pulling for his two Quakes’ teammates to rise to the occasion for Panama.
“I hope to watch all the games,” Wondolowski said. “I’ll definitely be rooting for them to do well.”