In each of the last two Gold Cups the United States and Panama have played competitive knock out stage matches. With that backdrop, much was expected tonight and the game was every bit as competitive as the previous two. I thought before the game the game would be decided by a single goal either way. That happened, but the match proved to be less open than I had anticipated.
An impressive crowd and a well maintained though smallish pitch greeted the teams in Philadelphia. Unlike Seattle, who have proven they can support MLS and traveling EPL clubs but not the USA, Philly actually proved they can turn out in mass for a USA game with second choice players. (Seattle also unfortunately proved that they’ll roll grass out for Chelsea and not for the national team which is another issue for me)
So with a great crowd greeting the national team to Philadelphia and a beautiful pitch, the US did not disappoint early. Showing an attacking intent Brian Ching hit the post and Chad Marshall just misconnected on a beautiful free kick from Stuart Holden.
This was an impressive start considering how solid Panama had looked in its last two group games at the back, but the US opened up the Panamanians right down the middle. But without a goal, as the first half went on the narrow pitch came into play as both Robbie Rogers and Stuart Holden struggled to find space out wide.
Kyle Beckerman and Heath Pearce were very impressive early. Jimmy Conrad’s concussion on a set piece late in the first half was directly answered by a beautiful goal by Blas Perez. Perez interestingly enough just signed a contract days ago to leave the FMF and play in the Middle East for big money.
Beckerman stepped up and delivered a wonder strike when Stuart Holden, who struggled much of the night with spacing couldn’t control a ball in the area as it floated towards Beckerman. The US looked poised to win the match in regulation but did not. Kenny Cooper’s PK won the match for the US in extra time.
For all of Bob Bradley’s critics it must be disheartening that the US manager continues to press the right buttons in this tournament. Severally undermanned (Panama had the superior team on paper tonight)the manager once again got his tactics right despite the smallish pitch. Bradley’s limitations as a manager internationally were certainly exposed at times in the Confederations Cup, but back in the friendly confines of CONCACAF, it’s difficult to outfox him.
He also got all his subs right. Clarence Goodson, who has become a goal scoring threat on set pieces for IK Start was a handful in dead ball situations. Kenny Cooper was dangerous playing off of Brian Ching instead of as a target man. Brad Evans brought some extra defensive help to the side.
Given the squad, the US has achieved if not exceeded all reasonable and measured expectations for this tournament. Some may disagree, but studying CONCACAF as carefully as I do in preparation for World Cup qualifying and the Gold Cup I firmly believe Grenada is the only team the USMNT has faced in this tournament that we were clearly superior to. Now the US plays a Honduras team that they dominated for much of the match last week. The Hondurans, missing the majority of their big guns like the United States, don’t pose the type of aerial, athletic or tactical threat Panama did tonight. The US may have in fact dispatched the side most likely to beat them in the tournament in sending the Panamanians home.
For several members of this team the Gold Cup in 2009 represents the pinnacle of their football careers. Unlikely to make a World Cup squad and playing club football in the relative obscurity of MLS, this is a big moment for many of them. They should continue to savor it.