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.