Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Scouting Report: Panama - Semifinals

By Clemente Lisi – The USA’s collision course with Mexico remains very much alive at this Gold Cup. That seemingly inevitable final match-up between CONCACAF’s two best teams is the likeliest outcome from Wednesday’s semifinal doubleheader at what’s expected to be a full Reliant Stadium in Houston.

While Mexico mounted a 2-1 comeback win over Guatemala Saturday at New Meadowlands Stadium in suburban New York to set up a semifinal against Honduras, the United States got the better of Jamaica the following day at RFK Stadium with a cathartic 2-0 win.

Now, the USA gets another shot at Panama, only this time, the game is a do-or-die affair. At stake is a spot in this Saturday’s final at the Rose Bowl. Panama, the tournament’s Cinderella team, will be looking to play spoiler once again. In its quarterfinal victory over El Salvador on Sunday night, Panama had more scoring chances over 120 minutes. Ending 1-1- in regulation and with that score holding through the overtime period, they needed a 5-3 win via penalty kicks to advance. That should take nothing away from Panama’s strengths. After all, they’re the team that finished first in Group C.

The USA, for its part, will need to remain confident if it wants to avenge its 2-1 loss to Panama in the first round just 10 days ago. In a telephone poll conducted by Spanish-language network Univision, only 38% of viewers said the USA could defeat Panama. Aside from the fact that those polled were mostly Hispanic, there is some reason to fear Panama. While Panama remains a solid team, the Americans are not the same squad that lost to them in Tampa.

Instead, there should be optimism in a USA win. The Americans are definitely surging and the victory over Jamaica was a positive step in showing just how hard to beat they can be when things come together. US coach Bob Bradley tweaked his lineup just enough for it to dramatically improve things. Bradley’s 4231 – instead of the much-used 442 – served him well. For Bradley, having the extra bodies in the midfield definitely helped create more offense. What resulted was a solid showing and superiority in every part of the field. The USA will again need to up its game to get past the potent Panamanians.

Like they did against Jamaica, the Americans will need to capitalize on their opponents’ mistakes. Midfielder Sacha Kljestan started in his first game at this Gold Cup and created ample space for Clint Dempsey. Ditto for Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones, both of whom had great games. Both had possession of the ball for long stretches and the usually defensive Jones pushed up in an effort to aid the attack. His efforts were rewarded with a goal. The second US strike came from Dempsey, who broke out of a brief funk to score his fourth all-time Gold Cup.

“From the start, we were able to do a good job establishing control, passing the ball and keeping the ball,” Bradley told reporters after the game.

The US defense had a relatively easy day against Jamaica. Don’t expect Panama to fall as flat. True, they might be fatigued, playing those 120 minutes and the stress of the penalties in a game that started on Sunday evening, but Panama has shown at this Gold Cup that it can compete with the best teams.

Under coach Julio Dely Valdes, Panama has turned into a much tougher side. If in the past teams like El Salvador would have gotten the best of them, Panama has learned to compete with the rest of Central America. Panama could have gotten further at previous editions of the Gold Cup had they not always seemed to have run into the United States and been eliminated.

That’s almost like a regular occurrence. The USA is 6-1-2 all-time versus Panama, including a 3-1-1 record at the Gold Cup. Prior to this Wednesday’s game, both sides have met in the knockout stage of the tournament three consecutive times. The Americans defeated Panama on penalty kicks in the 2005 final and beat Panama 2-1 in both the 2007 and 2009 quarterfinals.

Asked about playing the United States, Dely Valdes said, "It will be a very complicated game.”

Striker Luis Tejada has become the Gold Cup's biggest clutch player after he tied the score against El Salvador in the 90th minute to send the match into overtime. The controversial goal - El Salvador later claimed the ball never crossed the line - energized Panama, who came close to scoring twice during the extra session. In the shootout, Tejada scored what turned out to be the decisive kick to send Panama through to the semis. Tejada had also scored in injury time in the final group stage match against Canada to earn a 1-1 draw.

“I’m not at all worried. We really need some rest because the game is only a few days away,” Tejada said. “The United States is a great rival, but I do think this will be a different game the second time.”

Panama will be without Blas Perez, who was red-carded following a scuffle against El Salvador's Luis Anaya at the end of regulation. Perez's absence will hamper Panama's flashy attack. He had played in all four games thus far, scoring a goal. Panama doesn't have the depth of other Central American teams like Honduras and could find itself at a loss up top.

All that bodes well for the USA. If the surging Americans can keep its defense compact and midfield pushing forward, revenge over Panama will be complete. Mexico or Honduras may be waiting on the horizon, but the USA needs to get past Panama if it wants to play for the trophy. A repeat performance of the Jamaica game would be enough for them to reach the final.


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