Entering this 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup, the United States Men’s National Team had it’s issues. Most figured they would ultimately be exposed in the late stages of the tournament. Instead, those problems, coupled with a lackluster first-half performance, contributed to a 2-1 defeat to Panama in Group C play.
Bob Bradley made no changes from the squad that eased itself to a 2-0 victory over Canada. Perhaps the last 10 minutes of that match were a harbinger of what was to come, as Canada pelted goalkeeper Tim Howard with a number of quality chances in desperation. In those latter stages, the defensive line looked somewhat disorganized and inexperienced, a point of much concern for many entering the Cup. While it took Canada nearly the entire 90 minutes to exploit that pairing, Panama took full advantage of this weakness from the outset.
A questionable foul (and yellow card) was called on Jermaine Jones in the 18th minute. From the ensuing set play, Gabriel Gomez crossed to Eduardo Dasent, who had passed behind the back four. He headed a ball down towards net. Tim Howard got a hand to it, but striker Luis Tejada was there to clean up the rebound to put Panama ahead 1-0.
The troubling part was that the goal wasn’t really against the run of play. While the Yanks had some possession, they were rarely dangerous in the first 45, resorting to weak shots from outside the area. The same could not be said of Panama, who showed much ingenuity in the attack, and ended up putting the US on their heels.
Panama’s second goal came in the 35th minute, as the US continued to struggle to create any kind of meaningful offensive push. Ream was trying to clear the ball from his own half, but he didn’t realize that Blas Perez was closing. As Ream kicked, Perez tipped the ball clear. Ream’s follow-through impeded Perez’ progress, and the penalty was awarded. Gomez then converted from the spot to double the lead.
The performance for the United States was best described as flat. It was as if they expected Panama to roll over and allow them to control this match. The defense was not proactive, but rather reactionary. In soccer, you have to anticipate the opponent’s intentions, and I believe Ream will get there in good time. Unfortunately it will take learning experiences like Saturday night to ripen the young New York back. It wasn’t only Ream, but Panama pretty clearly felt that they could take advantage of a younger back.
The Americans didn’t really get into the match until the final half-hour. Bradley eventually had to admit he needed to get his top offensive threat, Dempsey, into the danger area. So he subbed off Jones (who was unhappy about his removal) and Agudelo (who has been looking gassed after this stretch of training and matches, and brought on Kljestan and Bedoya.
The mounting pressure allowed the US to get a goal back on the set piece, as Donovan’s free kick from near the corner flag in the 67th minute glanced off Michael Bradley’s head, and Goodson was able to lunge forward and head it into the gaping goal.
Bradley later brought off Goodson, perhaps to rest him for Guadeloupe, and entered Wondolowski up front. The move should have paid major dividends with 10 minutes left, as Altidore found Wondo with a cross inside the 6. The San Jose Earthquake volleyed the ball, but he skied it over the crossbar in agonizing fashion. Bradley also had another chance in the area, but could not get the shot on frame.
In my mind, the biggest key is intensity and purpose heading into Guadeloupe. Bob Bradley needs to dial this side up. There was a change after the 60 minute mark with the team, but there needs to be that kind of urgency against teams like Panama from the opening kick. My immediate reaction to their slow start was that of a team who had become complacent after what I’d characterize as a cake walk against Canada. The Gold Cup is our showcase tournament, and no offense to Panama, but we can’t afford to struggle like this against weaker opponents.
In my mind, the United States now needs a dominating performance against Guadeloupe. It’s not so much about getting the best seeding for the knockout phase, but more for the team’s confidence. Belief is needed from this team, both that they can generate offense, and also being able to bury the chances when they come. I do believe this team is as talented as Mexico, but Mexico doesn’t have the frail psyche that the US displayed early in this match.
As for changes, I think there’s no doubt that you need to bring Oguchi Onyewu back into the picture. Soccer can be harsh, and it should certainly mean that Ream would need to be sacrificed for the time being. Ream has gotten two matches worth of big-game international experience now, I don’t think it will stunt any growth to have him provide depth at back for the rest of this tournament. I also think we need a slightly more offensively-minded holding midfielder, namely Maurice Edu. Michael Bradley was not on his game last night, and having a guy like Edu there who can be a second option in linking the attack. Finally, I think the elder Bradley needs to juggle the forwards up front a bit. I don’t think we can afford to be coddling along both Altidore and Agudelo at the same time up front. Whether it be Dempsey or Wondolowski (regardless of his miss tonight), we need someone who knows how to finish up front.
The final game in the group stage against Guadeloupe starts at 9 PM on Tuesday night, shown both on Fox Soccer Channel as well as CONCACAF.tv . After the match, I’ll be appearing on our own Daniel Feuerstein’s podcast, which will start at 11 PM right after the match. We’ll break down the match and hopefully look forward to the remainder of the tournament.