Friday, June 10, 2011

Scouting Report: Panama

By Clemente Lisi -- After outclassing Canada in its Gold Cup opener, the United States takes on Panama on Saturday in another delicate Group C encounter. A win would earn the National Team a berth to the quarterfinals. A loss or draw would set up a potential do-or-die match against Guadeloupe.

A USA victory appears to be the likeliest scenario at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, FL. The Americans are 24-0-2 all-time in group play at the Gold Cup and have had the best of Panama at past tournaments. Panama, making their fifth Gold Cup appearance, does not have the same soccer pedigree as its Central American neighbors, but has enjoyed a degree of success over the past six years. Panama reached the 2005 Gold Cup final, only to lose to the USA on penalty kicks. The USA also eliminated Panama from the Gold Cup in the quarterfinals of both the 2007 and 2009 editions.

“We’re in a weird situation in CONCACAF because we play a lot of top teams around the world and we’re hunting them all the time,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard, comparing the USA’s recent friendly with Spain compared to the field it will face at the Gold Cup. “Then you come into CONCACAF and - for better or worse - we are the hunted.”

La Marea Roja is coached by Julio Dely Valdes, a former striker with Cagliari in Italy’s Serie A, who took over as manager last year. Under Dely Valdes, Panama finished third with a 3-0-2 at the Copa Centroamericana to qualify for the Gold Cup. The team is currently ranked 67th by FIFA.

Panama had spent the past few weeks in the US training for the tournament. While in Florida last month, Panama played the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers in a scrimmage that ended 1-1. In its Gold Cup opener this past Tuesday, Panama nearly squandered a three-goal lead with 26 minutes left in the game. Against a scrappy Guadeloupe, Panama dominated the first half, jumping out to a 2-0 lead and ultimately holding on to win 3-2. Despite almost let the game get away from them in the final minutes, Dely Valdes didn’t seem overly concerned.

“I am very happy with the way the team has played. It is important to get a win in the first game of a tournament,” he said through a translator. “We are prepared for the US and satisfied with our training going into the game. We are very motivated to do well against such a good team.”

In many ways, Panama will be a much tougher opponent than Canada was Tuesday night in Detroit. Panama moves the ball well and combines physical play with finesse passing and an effective offensive game.

The player to keep a close eye on is striker Luis Tejada, who has played in 11 Gold Cup games and scored six goals for Panama. Nicknamed “Matador” for his ability to tame charging defenders, the 29-year-old Tejada has collected 44 caps and 18 goals since making his Panama debut in 2004. Tejada, who scored his team’s second goal against Guadeloupe, was top scorer with three goals at the 2005 Gold Cup and was named the tournament’s MVP.

Another player the USA needs to keep tabs on is attacking midfielder Armando Cooper. Just 23, Cooper has been a regular in the lineup under Dely Valdes for much of the year. Known for his pinpoint passes and ability to create space, Cooper has amassed 12 caps and scored two goals since making his debut in January 2010. He was previously a member of Panama’s Under-20 squad and was once scouted by the New York Red Bulls.

Panama has few weaknesses. If anything, there is a talent gap that gives the USA an edge in this game. Having said that, better teams don’t always win. Known to hunker down defensively after taking the lead, Panama’s back line typically does a reliable job. In its previous eight games this year before the start of this year’s Gold Cup, Panama conceded just two goals.

Veteran goalkeeper Jaime Penedo has played in 14 Gold Cup matches since 2005 and his leadership and experience is a big reason why Panama has kept opponents off the board. Against a 10-man Guadeloupe, Panama gave up two goals – both just feet from the goal in the six-yard box – to equal its tally for the year. Panama’s defense could be in even bigger trouble this weekend. In doubt is central defender Roman Torres, who was injured against Guadeloupe. Dely Valdes said that the 25-year-old Torres has stiffness in his left thigh that could keep him sidelined. Dely Valdes said he could field 22-year-old Eduardo Dasent, who has just two caps, in Torres’ place.

The US was calm and collected against Canada. It needs to do the same Saturday. If the US offense is firing on all cylinders, the game will be an easy win for the Americans. Jozy Altidore’s goal against Canada and honored with Man of the Match honors in the USA’s 2-0 win should help the offense in general regain confidence. Altidore had not scored for the National Team since September 2009 and managed just one tally this season with his Turkish team Bursaspor.

“For confidence, it’s a good game for Jozy,” US coach Bob Bradley said during Tuesday’s post-match news conference. “The movement that led to the first goal and, obviously, the ball that he put across for (Clint Dempsey’s) goal were both great plays. When you go through a stretch with your club team where you’re not always playing regularly and not getting goals, in terms of confidence this was very important.”

Team captain Carlos Bocanegra said the US needs to possess the ball for longer stretches and avoid counterattacks if it wants to beat Panama.

“We have to come out with the same energy and put them on their heels like we did to Canada,” he said. “I think we had four or five corners in the first 10 minutes of the game.”

Dely Valdes said the players on the field are just part of what it takes to win. He is hoping Panamanians fans living across Florida will come out to support the team.

“The players are prepared and I hope our fans are as well,” he said. “The fans need to believe in us and support this side. Whenever Panama plays the US, it is a very big game here and in my country.”

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