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Three thoughts on U.S.-Panama

HOUSTON -- Three thoughts after the U.S.' 1-0 victory against Panama put the Yanks into Saturday's Gold Cup final:

Landon Donovan responded to his coach's message in the best way a player can. In a surprise move, U.S. coach Bob Bradley left Donovan, his best-known player, on the bench for the second straight game. But Donovan fired back on the field with his actions, entering to start the second half and sending the decisive pass to Clint Dempsey, who scored the game-winner in the 77th minute of a tight game. Donovan's benching suggested that it had less to do with his trip to his sister's wedding last weekend than with his ineffective form of late in a U.S. uniform. And while he wasn't dominant in his 45 minutes, his speed and vision on the game's biggest play ended up making the difference. There was a reason that Dempsey pointed at Donovan as the U.S. players celebrated their goal. It was a sign of solidarity and support among the team's two best players.

Freddy Adu's Gold Cup debut was a good one. Bradley also had another surprise up his sleeve, inserting Adu into his first game of this tournament in the 66th minute for Juan Agudelo (who had been effective as an active lone forward). It was Adu whose long pass from the central midfield found Donovan on the break on the U.S.'s goal sequence. A lot of people have written off the 22-year-old Adu as he has descended through the ranks of European soccer -- he played on loan last season in the Turkish second division -- but Bradley rewarded him with a call-up for this tournament and showed confidence in Adu by bringing him into a 0-0 game. Adu, in turn, proved that he still has some confidence of his own these days. Let's not overreact and say Adu has finally "made it," but give the kid some credit on a big night for him.

The U.S. still has room for improvement. This was a hard game against a Panamanian team that punched above its weight the entire tournament. But the U.S. still needs to sharpen up if it's going to have a chance of winning Saturday's final. I expect Donovan will start in place of Sacha Kljestan, who started against Panama and had an ineffective performance, losing several balls before being replaced at halftime. As a lone forward, Agudelo probably brings more to the table these days than Jozy Altidore did in that spot, not least because Agudelo is extremely active moving side-to-side and putting himself in dangerous spots on the field. His finishing (and the rest of the team's) can get better, though. Everyone expected the U.S. to make the final. Now that the Yanks are there, they'll have to play their best game of the tournament to raise the trophy.