One more win should seal the deal as the U.S. seeks a Gold Cup second round spot, but it may not come easily Saturday in Florida against a stubborn, experienced and defensively strong Panamanian team.
The little Central American nation may be thin of global soccer achievement but it's no cream puff in these regional tournaments. Four years ago Panama came uncomfortably close to sideswiping the U.S. Gold Cup run, which would have reduced Bob Bradley's side to spectators for the 2009 Confederations Cup.
Panama, with historical ties to the U.S. due to its iconic canal, qualified for the previous three Gold Cups, in 2005, 2007 and 2009. The Central Americans reached the final once and advanced as far as the quarterfinals in the other two tournaments. Even more telling than Panama's respectable 5-5-5 Gold Cup record over the last decade is this: each loss was by a single goal. As the minnows of CONCACAF go, the men of Marea Roja (Red Storm) know certainly how to make things tough for the bigger fish.
Before the U.S. took to that choppy little ragamuffin of a field Tuesday night in Detroit, coach Jorge Dely Valdes' Panamanians safely saw home a 3-2 win over Guadeloupe inside the same venue. The headlines reported victory over a 10-man unit, but note that Panama was ahead by two goals before Guadeloupe saw red late in the first half.
The United States has sometimes struggled to break down smaller nations that dig in defensively, then lurk for one or two telling offensive opportunities. It can sometimes take a little innovation, a new idea or two to peel back the defensive layers, and that was surely on Bradley's mind as he surprised everyone with the Freddy Adu gambit. Adu wasn't on the 18-man roster for Tuesday's tournament opener, a relatively comfortable 2-0 win over Canada, but an appearance off the bench Saturday shouldn't be ruled out. Either way, the test against Panama figures to be at least as difficult as Tuesday's.
"We need to be a little bit better possessing the ball moving forward so we don't lose the ball cheaply and get countered," veteran U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra said of Saturday's contest inside the NFL's Raymond James Stadium (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer, TeleFutura). "We have to come out with the same energy and put them on their heels like we did to Canada."
Four years ago Bocanegra's header off a DaMarcus Beasley free kick proved the game-winner in a 2-1 quarterfinal win over Panama in Foxborough, Mass. Landon Donovan supplied the opener in a physical contest that spiraled into a scrappy nail-biter at the end. The Panamanians qualified for Gold Cup 2011 with a fourth-place finish in the Central American championships earlier this year, downing El Salvador, Nicaragua and Belize by two goals each. They fell in the semifinals to Costa Rica in penalty kicks.
Saturday in Tampa, Bradley has some tricky lineup choices while navigating the tournament's challenging pace. Tim Howard, Tim Ream, Clarence Goodson, Jermaine Jones, Juan Agudelo, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey played at least a half last Saturday against Spain and Tuesday against Canada. So an appearance Saturday would be their third in eight days, with travel between each stop.
Still, Bradley could roll the dice and stick with the starters, hoping for a win that in all likelihood would clinch a quarterfinal berth. That would leave Bradley free to rest most or all of his starters in their Group C closer next week against Guadeloupe in Kansas City.
Or, he could mix and match a little more, inserting backups here and there to help protect against fatigue over the entire three-week tournament.
The U.S. defense was generally solid Tuesday against Canada, aside from two second-half moments where Howard needed to be big and fierce. Carlos Bocanegra on the left and Steve Cherundolo on the right were predictably dependable. The more significant performance was in the middle, where Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson rewarded Bradley's faith with strong nights.
Ream's positioning, instincts and typically calm demeanor never wavered. The slightly more experienced Goodson looked similarly unflappable, knifing aggressively into a couple more important tackles than his partner. This was easily the most meaningful international appearance for Goodson and for Ream, the New York Red Bulls center back who has come so far in barely a year since debuting professionally in March of 2010. Ream said the wise old hands around him were reassuring.
"It helps me out a ton," Ream said. "Having Clarence next to me, and then Carlos on my left and even Stevie out right. They give me little pointers here and there and the communication is so good back there that you always know when you have cover and when a guys coming."
Panama certainly has players who can punish defensive indecision or inattention. Luis Tejada has a particular history of Gold Cup accomplishment. Six years ago the striker, who plays in Peru's top division, scored three times in Panama's dash to the 2005 Gold Cup final; the Central Americans lost to the United States in a penalty kick shootout.
That was the same year Tejada dropped jaws with a spectacular bicycle kick goal in World Cup qualifying against Mexico. (It happened in 1-1 draw in Panama, evidence that Marea Roja has its moments in CONCACAF's most important regional tournament, too.)
Tejada's contributions were huge Tuesday against Guadeloupe. His inventive assist arranged Blas Perez's opening goal. Later, Tejada created one for himself with some fancy dribbling inside the penalty area, clearing space to find the far post for a 2-0 lead.
Perez, property of Leon in Mexico's second tier, also earned his team's game-winning penalty kick. The rest of Panama's talent is spread through leagues in Colombia, Uruguay, Venezuela, Bolivia, Guatemala, France, Poland and Spain.
Howard said he and his U.S. teammates understand the necessary mindset against these smaller sides; the trick is maintaining that tight wiring over all 90 minutes.
"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," Howard said. "Then you come into CONCACAF and, for better or worse, we're the hunted. It takes on a different mindset and I think equally you have to be hard, you have to be tough and you can't take anything for granted."