This is the Gold Cup, not the World Cup, right?
No one is too surprised about tough sledding when it comes to claiming second round berths in global soccer's biggie. But should the U.S. really be going into its final match in Gold Cup group play in such dire straits, desperate for a result and watching the scoreboard for safe passage in this one?
This is unprecedented territory for a U.S. side that had a very bad Saturday night, now left to explain away its first loss ever (in 26 matches) in group play of a regional championship that really shouldn't be this difficult. As it is, a golden moment in Panamanian soccer has left a smorgasbord of tough questions for the U.S. following the Central Americans'
And just when things were falling so nicely into place in the U.S. quest for another Gold Cup title (and a second consecutive Confederations Cup berth that goes with it).
But they are solidly up against it now. While Panama qualified for the second round, the U.S. probably needs a win Tuesday against Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park, the brand new ground in Kansas City.
That creates a bushel of problems for Bradley, who now must presumably turn to his weary starters once again. Rather than resting the mainstays for elimination games, they'll have to risk the fatigue factor for tougher matches ahead and play the first-teamers Tuesday. It also means important men like captain Carlos Bocanegra, Michael Bradley, Jozy Altidore and others risk missing the quarterfinal if they pick up another yellow card, which is hardly an ideal situation.
Even if they win Tuesday, the Americans will probably finish second in the group, which means a tougher quarterfinal matchup.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Bradley's men could still lose to Guadeloupe, the small French department, if they roll a hunk of junk onto the field Tuesday as they did in the first half Saturday inside Raymond James Stadium.
The old U.S. bugaboo of slow starts bit again -- and bit hard this time. In matches past the U.S. has been able to respond and rally. But the Panamanians, as so many warned, are a stubborn bunch.
U.S. central defenders Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream struggled against Panamanian strikers Blas Perez and Luis Tejada, who are having quite a tournament. The entire U.S. defense looked shoddy while reorganizing after an early free kick, which created the conditions for Panama's first goal. Later, Ream showed his youthful inexperience in giving away an unnecessary penalty kick for a 2-0 lead before the half.
It wasn't just the back line; the collective U.S. defending just didn't look up to par against a Panamanian group unafraid to commit six and seven players into the attack. Credit the Central Americans, who troubled the United States in the Gold Cup quarterfinals four years ago, for aggressively attacking the host team.
The lack of a U.S. creator hampered the comeback effort. And so did the U.S.' lack of striking power from its pair of young front-runners. In fact, a big difference in this one was that Perez and Tejada were simply much better than their U.S. counterparts, more savvy and more enterprising.
Goodson partially redeemed himself for his part of the mess in the back with a goal off a set piece -- yes, the U.S. needed another set-piece goal to get on the board. The United States was better in the second half, pressing Panama and coming close to equalizing, but ultimately unable to finish the job.
"We had no choice," Donovan told Fox Soccer after the match. "We were down 2-0 and had to push and push. We're upset with how we started the game. ... We defended better, our effort was better. But we just can't start games like that."