I must admit I was tempted to go all hyperbolic and use headline – “Biggest USA/Panama Re-match Since Duran and Leonard” but thought the better of it.
As it turned out the game had little of the drama of that fight (youngsters can look it up) but it did offer up enough to make it a very worthwhile endeavour.
Both teams were content to approach the game with a large degree of caution during the first forty-five minutes. Both sets of defensive midfield players were unwilling to push forward in support and focused almost entirely on frustrating any forward thrusts.
When the opportunity arose the USA and Panama looked to Lichaj and Machado to test the resolve of the oppositions’ centre backs with long throws into the penalty box.
Panama had obviously done a great deal of homework on the USA and were willing to overload the left side of their defence knowing that was where the USA were going to attack.
Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes and his coaching staff deserve a tremendous amount of credit for moulding a team that has shown excellent organization throughout the tournament and one that is the greater than the sum of the parts.
The lack of a naturally left footed option combined with the limitations of Goodson’s long-range passing meant that the US continually checked back inside when the ball reached the left side of their attack and Panama handled it with a minimum amount of fuss.
When the ball got forward to Agudelo he was predictable in both his movement and choices and often the attack fizzled out. The US needed a more mobile option as a lone striker but instead were caught going for strength against strength and it was a match-up that weighed heavily in Panama’s favour.
The first of two important changes were made at the start of the second half by Bob Bradley. Donovan came on for Kljestan and pushed to the left side. It was a move that failed to stretch the Panama defence on their right side but it was clear that Donovan’s pace was something Panama feared.
During the first half they Panamanians got tight but with Donovan they backed off and that offered the US a few more passing options.
The other change was unexpected – certainly as far as the player coming into the game was concerned. For Adu it was not so much a case of entering the game but more of returning from the wilderness.
With Agudelo exiting Dempsey moved up front and the ball started to move more quickly for the US. It all came together in a six pass move that started on the edge of the US penalty box and finished with Dempsey sliding home a Donovan pass at the other end.
It was a delightful goal that was worthy of winning any match.
It had all the elements you would want to see in a counter-attack – winning the ball, retaining it with a couple of passes, drawing the opposition in and then unleashing first a wonderful long pass inside the full back followed by a driven cross pushed home by a striker who had timed his run to perfection.
USA Player Ratings (1 – low, 10 high)
Howard – 7, put in his normal reliable effort for his country. Commanded his area and made all the right decisions.
Cherundolo – 6, sent in a delicious cross that Agudelo headed on to the frame in the first half. Never in trouble defensively throughout the entire ninety minutes.
Goodson – 6, little was asked of him but what he did he did well enough. Tejada can be a handful but he rarely got a clear sight of goal.
Bocanegra – 6, ditto for the captain.
Lichaj – 5, despite what we read and hear Lichaj is not the answer for the USA at left back. He put in one left footed cross and the rest of the game he constantly passed back inside or made runs inside. Narrowed the field when he should have been expanding it.
Bradley – 6, adequate job as a defensive shield. Very rarely did he get forward into Panama’s penalty box but that might have been as much about ensuring that the USA was not suckered on the break than a lack of ambition.
Jones – 6, he comes with his limitations particularly in terms of quickness but he does play with smarts. Watching Jones manage a game out when his side is leading is an education.
Bedoya – 5, started promisingly down the right side but he was unable to build on it as he struggled to stay in the action. However, he did play a part in the build up the goal.
Kljestan (out 46th) – 5, looked uncomfortable playing in the tight spaces of the first half and never made a telling contribution during his stint.
Dempsey – 7, got the winner after taking up a great position at the far post and being patient enough for the ball to be delivered. When Bradley moved Dempsey into the lone striker position it had nothing to do with strength and everything to do with making more effective use of his smarts.
With no disrespect to his club performances Dempsey is one of these players who is made for international football – plays with his head, rarely if ever panics and is never overawed by the opposition or the occasion.
Agudelo (out 66th) – 5, was too predictable for a physical and no-nonsense Panama centre back partnership. When he did drift into a wide position he generally made a decision to take defenders on instead of moving the ball quickly and allowing his teammates to take advantage of the space he had created.
Deserves mention for a first half header that cracked off the frame.
Donovan (in 46th) – 6, added mobility and a sense of purpose when he got the ball although he wasn’t always successful. However, the ball he played to Dempsey was simply breathtaking.
Adu (in 66th) – 6, an inspired substitution that paid off for Bob Bradley. His contribution may have been limited but they were very important. The turn and pass that fed Landon Donovan was wonderful and he made some good decisions late in the game when possession was more valuable than progress.
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