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Lively Panama attack exposes U.S.

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' shocking 2-1 victory in Tampa over Bob Bradley's team.

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). Mexico's team is in disarray due to tainted chicken or tainted decisions or whatever. And the Canadians helped the U.S. cause with a result earlier Saturday evening that should have favored Bradley's men.

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."

GK Tim Howard, 4 -- His footwork and anticipation wasn't the best on the opening goal, and the result was a rebound left in a dangerous place. Handled the ball well otherwise.

D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- The best night of all American defenders, for whatever that's worth. Good work in the Panama end, although some of his crosses lacked authority. He drew the foul for the first U.S. goal and generally put a lot of pressure on Panama's defense.

D, Tim Ream, 3 -- Showed his youth in giving away the penalty kick, getting baited by Blas Perez and going for a mighty clearance rather than prudently ushering the trouble away from goal. Both central defenders were sometimes bothered by the Panamanian strikers' quick passing combinations.

D, Clarence Goodson, 4 -- Rarely beaten in the air but not as good on the ground. He had trouble dealing with big, burly Perez. And he couldn't quite gain leverage in the battle with Luis Tejada on Panama's opening goal. Took a stupid yellow card in the 57th minute, one that provided his team no tactical advantage.

D, Carlos Bocanegra, 4 -- The U.S. was still reorganizing after an early free kick, but he seemed as culpable as anyone for letting Eduardo Dasent run free to create the first goal. The U.S. captain just doesn't have much in his offensive bag of tricks when he does get forward, which dented the comeback efforts. He should have known better than to pick up a silly, late yellow card that could easily come back to haunt him.

M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- He took two promising shots early but couldn't create much from there. Dempsey never has much rapport with Bocanegra down the left side. He was alert for good spots when moved up front for the game's final 30 minutes, but was still unable to get much going.

M, Michael Bradley, 4 -- The main man of the U.S. midfield had a far quieter night than in his big performance Tuesday against the Canadians. Fatigue may have been a factor; he was playing a third match in eight days. He just couldn't assert himself into the attack as he did Tuesday. All that said, he nearly rescued the night but barely missed in the 90th minute after some nifty combo work at the top of the 18.

M, Jermaine Jones, 4 -- Didn't ease into this one as he did Tuesday; he looked up to speed right away with his passing and tackling -- maybe even too much so. His 18th-minute yellow card for an overly eager tackle from behind wasn't smart, and the foul gave Panama its telling, early free kick. From there he seemed to shrink into the background. And he was out of his element completely when the United States went down by a pair of goals, creating a game unfit for his central midfield skill set, which leans heavily to the defensive side.

M, Landon Donovan, 4 -- A disappointing night for the U.S.' all-time leading scorer. His timing and accuracy was off early as he missed numerous connections with teammates. From there he disappeared for the waning minutes of the first half. Donovan picked up the pace a little after the break, but missed a potential equalizer at the far post in injury time.

F, Juan Agudelo, 4 -- Won two first-half free kicks in good spots with his speed and dribbling. From there, however, the young striker struggled in dealing with Panama's physical center backs and never left much of a mark on the game.

F, Jozy Altidore, 4 -- Set up Dempsey early and Chris Wondolowski late, and had a couple of headed chances in between, but that's about it. An early yellow card was needless, and he flirted with red later when he grabbed a jersey, looking frustrated. He's still young and needs to learn to keep his head better in physical matches like Saturday's. Scoring a goal is always the best revenge.

Substitutions

M, Alejandro Bedoya 4 -- Entered in the 60th in for Agudelo. Collected a yellow card for going down on minimal contact, if any, shortly after coming on. He was slightly vanilla on some sequences, a bit sloppy on a couple of others.

M, Sacha Kljestan, 5 -- Entered in the 60th minute for Jones. Tidy control in most spots, but he needed to bring a little more to the comeback party, needed something special to help open the Panamanian defense.

M, Chris Wondolowski, 4 -- Entered in the 78th minute for Goodson as Bradley added a third forward in an improvised 3-4-3 setup. The 2010 MLS Golden Boot winner butchered a chance to equalize from inside the six in the 81st minute on a great feed from Altidore. He did set up Michael Bradley on a late sequence inside the 18.

Bob Bradley -- The coach elected not to change a single starter from Tuesday's win over Canada, rolling the dice that his starters could get the result -- which they didn't. So that choice will be up for debate. So will his odd decision not to name Jonathan Bornstein and Freddy Adu to Saturday's 18-man roster. Neither player is on the 23-man Gold Cup roster for his defensive skills; both are here because they offer offensive alternatives at their positions. So, why did Bradley name them to the tournament roster if he wasn't going to use them, if he wasn't going to have them at the ready for just such an occasion? Bradley certainly could have used one or both in the second half as his team tried to pry open some gaps and get back into the game. Bottom line, this was a very bad evening for the U.S. coach.

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