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Panama 0-1 United States: Gold Cup Semifinal Review

On Wednesday, the United States Men’s National Team looked to avenge their Group Stage defeat to Panama at Reliant Stadium in Houston, TX. Two second-half substitutes contributed to Clint Dempsey’s clincher, as the Americans secured their place in the CONCACAF Gold Cup Finals with a 1-0 victory over the Canal Men.

Julio Dely Valdes was determined for Panama to match up against adjustments the United States made in their Quarterfinal with Jamaica. The Panamanian manager fielded a similar formation to the United States. One difference was that a forward, Alberto Quintero, played the central attacking midfield role. Additionally, wing midfielders Armando Cooper and Nelson Barahona played wider and deeper, in more defensive roles early on in the match.

Bob Bradley decided to stick with the formation that worked for the bulk of the Jamaica match. I think the “4-2-3-1” moniker has been used quite a bit, but simply put it was an adjustment from the 4-2-2-2 formation of choice for Bradley. The change was dropping a forward deeper, and replacing him with a possession-minded midfielder, namely Sasha Kljestan. The wing midfielders, Dempsey and Alejandro Bedoya, were still very narrow in the formation, much like the 4-2-2-2. For the second straight match, Landon Donovan was not in the first team.

The Panamanians’ primary focus in this match was intensity and pressure in marking. This was consistent with their Group Stage victory over the Americans. The second phase of the US attack was met with immediate pressure from Quintero, Amilcar Henriquez and Gabriel Gomez. Additionally, Cooper and Barahona, were committed to help fullbacks Luis Henriquez and Adolfo Machado in pressuring Bedoya and Dempsey, as well as containing Steve Cherundolo and Eric Lichaj from the fullback positions. For the early parts of the match, the commitment of the attacking midfield layer of the Panama squad helped to thwart much of the American attack that was so effective against Jamaica.

The Americans’ answer to the pressure was to play long diagonal crosses to players in the opposite flank. Many of these passes were accurate, but Panama was quick to react in most cases, and the US couldn’t find a consistent way to generate quality opportunities.

The best chance of the first half came on the overlap, as Cherundolo found room in the right flank. He crossed into the area, and striker Juan Agudelo’s headed effort cleanly found woodwork and bounded away harmlessly. The match went to the break scoreless. The United States enjoyed better possession throughout the half than Panama, but they couldn’t do well enough to get the ball to primary scoring threats, Agudelo and Dempsey, in prime locations.

The second half saw an immediate change for the United States, but it didn’t produce the desired effect. Bradley brought on the American talisman, Donovan, to replace Kljestan. As time wore on in the second half, Panama gained presence and possession, much to the dismay of US fans. The only position that was clearly defined in the attacking layer was that of Bedoya, as a winger on either flank. Both Donovan and Dempsey spent time in the advanced central midfield position, and neither could link well with Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, or Agudelo up front. The offense ground to a halt for the Americans.

In the period leading up to the lone goal, Panama enjoyed a number of dangerous chances, with Armando Cooper being the focal point. A 61st minute cross from Cooper eluded Quintero’s outstretched leg at the 6 yard box. A few minutes later, a quality run from the left midfielder beat Clarence Goodson, but his 10 yard shot from the left was deflected over the crossbar by Tim Howard.

Bradley’s other substitution could be described as sublime for fans of the US team. Freddy Adu saw his first action of the Gold Cup, and his first appearance for the team since the last Gold Cup in 2009. He replaced Agudelo, who had an above-par match, but who had been manhandled by an aggressive backline led by Felipe Baloy.

The offensive push for Panama continued. The team had jumped into the attack, seizing on a passion they appear to reserve especially for the US. Barahona, Luis Renteria (on for Cooper), and Gomez stepped up their push, as well as the fullbacks Machado and Henriquez.

Unfortunately for Panama, that last gasp effort gave the US the perfect opportunity to counter in the 77th minute. The ball came out of the US area to Adu. He lofted an exquisite long through, which Donovan was able to run onto down the right flank. He then passed through a defender’s legs, and Dempsey met the pass at the far post. He beat his defender to the ball, and pooched it into the goal for the game’s only score.

Tactically, Panama matches up well with the US, and their aggressive defensive posture exacerbates one of the Americans’ weak links: quality passing. Several times in this match we saw the quick passing game yield advantages, only to have sloppy passing cost us time to recover. With the back-line looking adequate at this point, the one aspect the United States lacks is a central playmaker, a guy who can distribute, hold possession in the middle of the park, pick out strikers, and thread the needle. Kljestan was barely average in this role. If Michael Bradley can improve his passing game, perhaps he could develop into this type of player. Until then, we will struggle against teams who can effectively close down our middle layer.

The CONCACAF Gold Cup Final will start at 9 PM on Saturday night. The Rose Bowl will be an electric stage for these two squads, Mexico and the US. It’s the final everyone envisioned three weeks ago before the tournament began, but both teams have taken different routes. El Tri’s was more traditional, cruising through Group A while struggling to advance against Guatemala and Honduras. We’ve chronicled the Red, White, and Blue’s plight on this blog from the outset. They’ve survived two middling performances against a quality Panama side. They dominated every other opponent, if not on the score-sheet in the run of play. The best news for Bradley is that Mexico has shed their cloak of invincibility in the Knockout Round, and perhaps one inspired effort from the US can earn them their fifth Gold Cup.

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  1. Roger

    June 24, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    I don’t want to sound crazy, but I’d rather have Kyle Beckerman as distributing midfielder over Jermaine Jones. Most of the time he gives away half-baked passes to the opposing team. Of course, I’d rather have Holden over any other distributing midfielder.

  2. Neil

    June 23, 2011 at 3:49 pm

    I truly believe once Stuart Holden becomes healthy (again) that Bradley needs make him the central playmaker. He showed this year how important he was for Bolton in this role. Take a look at how much they tailed off after he was chopped down.

  3. David

    June 23, 2011 at 2:58 pm

    I don’t know. They certainly looked better with Adu on the pitch than they did without him. Maybe a strikerless 4-6-0 formation is they way to go for this team. I would not be upset to see Freddy in the starting 11 if he could help open up the attack they way he did last night.

  4. CTBlues

    June 23, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I turned the game on at the 46th minute and it was hard keeping the game on. The US was keep passing the between 2 or 3 people on one side of the field and then loose the ball when they could switch sides of the field of play with one pass because there would be no Panamanian players on the opposite side of the field. We were lucky Dempsey was able to put that Donovan pass in the back of the net.

    • Mark

      June 23, 2011 at 1:47 pm

      I think this was largely due to the incredibly negative tactics of Panama, who had all 11 players in the defensive half for large portions of the game. Teams often used this approach in La Liga against Barca, difference being that Barca has a midfield that is creative and can pick the strategy apart. It wasn’t until Panama attacked and we brought on Adu who showed the vision to make the breakthrough pass that we scored. I honestly felt like Panama was playing for penalties the majority of the game, got a little confidence to attack, and lost because of it.

      • CTBlues

        June 23, 2011 at 2:07 pm

        I know of defensive mind vs Barca being a Chelsea fan. We used it quite well against them in the 08/09 Champions League until Iniesta got that lucky away goal in the last minute of the semi-final.

  5. Mark

    June 23, 2011 at 12:56 pm

    I really disagree that Agudelo had an above par performance, I think it is toally opposite. Every time he got the ball, he turned and ran at multiple defenders and/or made a poor pass that was often intercepted. Compare this to the hold-up play of a bigger and more experienced striker like Altidore. Further, the cross from Cherundolo was inch perfect and that should have been a simple goal for a quality striker, but instead it was blundered into the turf a yard in front of where he met it, and its amazing it even came close to going in. Also, I don’t think enough credit is being given to Adu. He came on and did what noone else had done the entire game, make a quality pass that required vision and skill, and just so happened to result in a goal. He also ran at defenders on the wing with skill and pace, and if Bradley had made a better decision when Adu gifted him a beautiful ball inside the right half of the 18 would have resulted in another goal.

    • Earl Reed

      June 23, 2011 at 1:29 pm

      For the record, I rated Adu as a 7 and Agudelo as 5.5. He was better against Jamaica.

    • Clampdown

      June 23, 2011 at 1:55 pm

      Totally disagree with you on Agudelo’s header. Cherundolo’s cross was at a difficult height, neither good for a header or for using his foot. He made a very good effort that was inches from paying off. Even Wynalda and Cobi agreed it was a great effort, and they both know quite a bit about scoring at this level. But, not Juan’s best match, for sure.

      Adu made the play to release Donovan, so he deserves the credit. But he is also lucky he didn’t get punished for having the ball easily taken away from him by Panama in a dangerous spot on the field.

  6. Short passes

    June 23, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Well written even-handed analysis, Earl. Definitely not the usual sycophantic drivel that usually originates with many of your peers. Keep it up. Regarding the game, I will be cheering for skillful soccer — go Mexico!!!

  7. Robert

    June 23, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Great game and glad to see USA get a win. However, this is where I draw the line and will be rooting for Mexico.

  8. Alan

    June 23, 2011 at 9:58 am

    Not a lot of goals scored, but the US showed that they have what it takes to beat Mexico.

    • SSReporters

      June 23, 2011 at 1:39 pm

      I don’t see it unless they have speed on the pitch. The game completely changed once Adu came on.

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