Monday, July 20, 2009

ATH: USA v Panama

Three minutes
By Graig Carbino - ALBANY, NY (Jul 19, 2009) USSoccerPlayers

For 180 seconds on Saturday night in Philadelphia Panama could see themselves finally reaching their soccer summit. In the lead courtesy of a Blas Perez goal, the Panamanians were finally going to beat the United States in Gold Cup competition. After being knocked out of the contest by the US the previous two tournaments, revenge was looking like theirs. For three minutes at least….

In truth, those three minutes were more like twenty as Perez’s goal came off a Panama corner kick right at the stroke of half-time. By the time the squads reemerged from the locker room, the US intentions became clear. There was a new look in the group's eyes that flashed aggression, a trait they needed to pick up in order to match the physicality of their opponents.

The US took the game to Panama early in the second period and Kyle Beckerman’s 49th minute pile driver brought the match even. It was a sucker punch to the stomach of Panama, knocking the wind out of the Central Americans and proving a blow too mighty to overcome.

A USA winner goal seemed inevitable as the field tilted toward the Panama goal for the remainder of the second half. It took over time, but when Kenny Cooper was fouled in the penalty area there was only going to be one outcome. The Dallas based forward stepped up and converted the penalty as he has done so many times for his club team and the United States had done it to Panama again.

The US came into this quarterfinal with a depleted roster of ‘green’ players that are still getting their feet wet on the international stage. Stuart Holden and Robbie Rogers started on the wings, a combination that had worked so well against Grenada on the first match day.

Davy Arnaud was rewarded for his recent sharp play with a start up front, partnering with one of the few veterans among the starting eleven, Brian Ching. Kyle Beckerman and Logan Pause struck up their partnership in the center of the field once again as Bob Bradley looked to put the shackles on the Panamanian ground game through the middle.

Jay Heaps picked up his second international cap starting opposite Heath Pearce at right back. Kansas City Wizards center back Jimmy Conrad took the captains armband for the second match running as he continues to force his way back into the National Team picture for next summer.

Unfortunately for Conrad, his night came to an early and abrupt ending just before half-time. As he rose to meet a US corner kick Conrad smashed heads with a Panama defender and crumpled to the turf appearing to be concussed while still in mid-air. As the defender was helped from the field and slowly made his way back to the locker room it was clear he would not be able to continue.

Whether it can be attributed to the loss of their captain in the heart of defense is uncertain. But the US were behind just after Conrad’s exit at the hands of Panama’s most dangerous attacking player.

An in swinging corner was not properly dealt with and bounced off a few bodies before falling to the feet of Blas Perez. The former Pachuca striker made no mistake smashing the ball past a helpless Troy Perkins in the US goal. There was barely enough time to kick off again before Benito Archundia’s whistle signaled for half-time.

The US weren’t without chances in the first-half, but never really looked to get their passing game going. Panama was bypassing the midfield and knocking passes into their strikers without much resistance. Perez and Luis Garces were being afforded time and space to receive the ball with Nelson Barahona pulling the strings. Luckily enough for the US, the attackers didn’t seem up to actually doing anything with their possession and Perkins was rarely tested.

There must have some team talk during the intermission. The United States seemed to come out of halftime with a new determination to impose their will on the game. They did not appear wary of what Panama might do, they were just concerned about what they needed to do.

Said Bradley, “We had to make sure our discipline to keep moving as a unit was there, and we also talked about the fact that, in certain situations, we can play the ball faster. We talked about having a little more energy, being a little more aggressive in those situations and obviously it was nice to get a goal early in the [second] half.”

Give a measure of credit to the Panamanians. They did not consciously do what we have seen from so many CONCACAF teams in the past. You know, get a lead against the US and then batten down the hatches and hold on for dear life until the end. No, Panama tried to keep playing the way they had for the first 45 minutes. The US just simply would not let them have their way.

Beckerman and Cooper assured that the US would move on to the semifinals against Honduras next week in Chicago, but the result against Panama was a true group effort. Logan Pause will never be confused for the most flashy player on the field, but he certainly did his holding job well last night. Jay Heaps, somewhat maligned after his performance against Haiti was as solid as ever at right fullback.

It is going to take a similar effort on Thursday at Soldier Field if the US is going to make it to their third straight Gold Cup Final.

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