The United States has reached the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals thanks to its best performance since South Africa 2010, a comfortable 2-0 quarterfinal win Sunday over Jamaica.
Now the Americans will have no shortage of motivation when they meet Panama inside Reliant Stadium in Wednesday's first semifinal. Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET (Fox Soccer and Univision). Mexico faces Honduras to cap the doubleheader; winners meet Saturday in the Rose Bowl with a coveted berth in the 2013 Confederations Cup at stake.
For now, a U.S. team with growing confidence has a chance to make amends for its most shocking loss ever in a meaningful competition. It was just more than a week ago in Tampa when so many U.S. issues -- the slow starts, the lack of quality strikers and the predictable tactics, most notably -- were laid bare in a dreary 2-1 loss to Panama in group play. It was the first U.S. loss ever in Gold Cup group play, and the first loss to Panama period.
A subsequent 1-0 win over tiny Guadeloupe only muffled the cavalcade of fan and media excoriation, although it did position Bob Bradley's side for a run at vindication.
That came in part against Jamaica, which had looked like a team on the rise but suffered from U.S. adjustments and the fresh legs of two strategic replacements. Bradley got the personnel and tactics right, while midfielder Jermaine Jones and others found their confidence at just the right moment.
Panama can still cause problems Wednesday, of course. But they certainly have the U.S. players' attention, so there will be no sneaking up on the hosts this time.
"So, we will face USA once again, but I think this time is going to be very different from the match we played in the previous stage; it will be very complicated," Panama coach Julio Dely Valdes said.
Complicated, indeed. One complication is the 30 extra minutes of soccer for the men of La Marea Roja, who needed extra time, penalty kicks and lady luck to overcome El Salvador in Washington, D.C., on Sunday. Panama extended the quarterfinal into extra time thanks to a controversial goal.
As Panama trailed by one in the dying moments, pressing desperately, striker Luis Tejada maneuvered through a crowded goal mouth chaos to pounce on a free ball inside the six. Salvadoran goalkeeper Miguel Montes found himself inside the goal but appeared to reach out and prevent Tejada's hopeful header from crossing the line. Officials saw it differently and awarded the goal. Neither team scored in the extra period, but Panama boldly converted all five tiebreaker penalty kicks to advance. (Where are those UEFA Champions League-type goal judges when you need them?)
Hard to say how the wackiness will affect the Red Storm; will they feel like a team of destiny, or just passengers who are lucky to be alive in the tournament?
Another complication that fell in the U.S. favor: Anybody remember powerful Panamanian striker Blas Perez and all the trouble he caused for U.S. center backs in Tampa? Well, he won't be around for this one. Perez had been a handful for Salvadoran defenders Sunday, as well, but picked up a red card after the final whistle (before extra time).
They still have Luis Tejada, who has three goals so far, tied for third best in the tournament. He slipped the first one past Tim Howard in last week's historic moment for the Panamanians.
Panama will surely have a few fans under the Reliant Stadium roof, but the numbers are unlikely to match what El Salvador could have put inside Houston's NFL stadium. (As it is, many of the 70,000-plus inside the sold out grounds will likely be wearing Mexico's colors, anyway.)
Thinks aren't all hunky-dory in the U.S. camp. U.S. Soccer officials said Monday that striker Jozy Altidore will get an MRI while in Houston to learn more about the hamstring issue that forced him to the sidelines after just nine minutes against Jamaica. Whatever the results, he's sure to miss Wednesday's match, which leaves Bradley with just two true strikers, likely starter Juan Agudelo and Chris Wondolowski.
Otherwise, Bradley has made some telling adjustments since the loss to Panama. Carlos Bocanegra has reinforced the American central defense, pairing with Clarence Goodson while Tim Ream was sacrificed to the bench. Key to that move has been Eric Lichaj's ability to police the left side -- even though it's not his best position -- which is allowing Bocanegra to remain centrally stationed.
The Panamanians have this going for them: Some of the U.S. legs looked suspiciously heavy Saturday against Jamaica. Most were playing their fifth game in 15 days, a fairly ridiculous request, even for such well-conditioned athletes. Panama, by contrast, rested six starters for its group play finale a week ago, the spoils of achievement over the United States.
Agudelo did fine Sunday, especially considering his lack of warmup and prep time. Then again, Panama's defensive structure is better than Jamaica's. That's one reason Agudelo struggled to put much of a stamp on the game when the sides clashed in Tampa. That, and Panama's pair of big, physical center backs.
Bradley has a choice to make regarding Landon Donovan. Donovan began Sunday's match on the bench, the first time he's had a seat next to the coach at kickoff since 2007. But that had to do with tough travel following his sister's wedding the day before; Donovan arrived into Washington, D.C., off his cross country flight from California eight hours before game time.
Instead, Bradley freshened up the lineup by introducing Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya, who provided some much-needed energy and attacking deviation in their first tournament starts. Donovan's reintroduction seems likely, even if he's been strangely quiet in four games so far.
But Bradley could still rearrange the pieces to get Kljestan or Bedoya on for the wounded Altidore. Bedoya was particularly effective Saturday, crisp on the ball and active away from it along the right flank, perhaps the best U.S. player after Jones. That's not bad at all considering he was an eleventh hour roster replacement for Benny Feilhaber.
"He was great," Donovan said Sunday. "He's been good every time he's come in during the tournament. You have to remember he was the last guy to make the roster. He was energetic and effective, and I thought he did really well."
If Bedoya plays, Bradley probably would move Donovan or Dempsey inside, where they don't often play. Or Bradley could position Dempsey play alongside Agudelo at striker in a return to the 4-4-2 alignment.
The 4-2-3-1 seen Sunday was a big improvement over previous experiments in that arrangement. Either way, Panama must prepare for two versions of the U.S. attack. The Central Americans prevailed last week through aggressive attacking, by making the United States worry about them and not vice versa.
Honduras' preparation for Mexico will be all about "Chicharito." That's Javier Hernandez, the young Manchester United scoring whiz who is quickly taking his place among more fabled Mexican soccer greats. Just 23 years old but blessed with rare timing and instincts near goal, Hernandez leads the tournament with six strikes so far. He joined Aldo De Nigris on the score sheet Saturday as heavily favored Mexico rallied from an early deficit to avoid a huge quarterfinal upset.
Three new players, all defenders, including Chivas veteran Hector Reynoso, have joined the Mexican contingent in Houston. Two others are on standby as Mexico has been allowed to replace the five players who tested positive two weeks ago for a banned substance.
Despite the reinforcements, Mexican coach Jose Manuel de la Torre seems unlikely to shake up a defense built around Carlos Salcido, Hector Moreno, Rafael Marquez and Efrain Juarez. El Tri has allowed just two goals in four matches.