HOUSTON -- U.S. player ratings in its 1-0 win over Panama (scale of 1-10).
GK, Tim Howard, 7 -- For a game that went into squeaky bum time at the end, Howard didn't need to don the superhero cape too often. He did get an important glove on a rising 71st-minute shot off Armando Cooper. Otherwise, there were few crosses to deal with, limited set pieces to police and just a couple of vaguely threatening shots. On the minus side, he unwisely got into a 27th-minute tussle with Panama's Luis Tejada. Just a wee bit more contact from Howard's right arm and the U.S. No. 1 may have seen red and been finished for the tournament. What a bummer that would have been for his team.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 7 -- The trusty right back seems to have two kinds of matches: good and great. This one leaned slightly toward the latter. His sharp cross in the first half nearly turned into a pretty Juan Agudelo goal. It was the first of Cherundolo's usual supply of steady service, although he never seems to get forward as much without Landon Donovan nearby. At the other end, smart positioning kept him out of the trouble in the first half against the speedy Alberto Quintero (who moved to the other side after intermission). Then it was Cherundolo to the rescue several times as the veteran defender tucked inside to snuff out trouble two or three times in the last 10 minutes.
D, Carlos Bocanegra, 6 -- Clearly, one big trouble maker of a striker is much easier to handle than two; he and fellow center back Clarence Goodson, without the suspended Blas Perez to worry about, generally contained Tejada. Bocanegra did lose focus once on a restart and let Tejada get the ball inside the U.S. penalty area, but the American captain was steady as they come after that.
D, Clarence Goodson, 6 -- He was busier with Tejada than Bocanegra and won a reasonable share of the challenges. Goodson never let anyone through the middle on the dribble, although he did get twisted up once as he ventured imprudently into a bad spot out wide against Quintero. But that might have been his only real slip. Generally, he was smooth and safe on the ball and scrappy when he needed to be.
D, Eric Lichaj, 7 -- It's fairly safe now to call the young defender a "revelation" at left back. Four weeks ago the United States thought of him as a third or fourth option there. He still has one huge test to go, but Lichaj can go into the Gold Cup final brimming with confidence after another calm, professional night. There really wasn't much happening on his side (or on either Panamanian flank, for that matter). Some of that was the Central Americans' tactics, but Lichaj did his part, too, never letting his side become the preferred route forward. On offense, Lichaj did just enough, motoring inside with the ball a couple of times and only scuffing one cross when he went outside.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- One thing for which the U.S. center midfield mainstay may not get enough credit: he frequently pinpoints exactly what the U.S. needs on a given night. Inside Reliant Stadium on Wednesday, Bradley needed to be an effective defensive screen, a role he performed with a vengeance for a half, focused on passing lanes and on denying balls into Tejada. Very little got through he and Jermaine Jones in the first 45, although Panama did dial up the pressure after the break. Bradley's work with the ball suffered a bit in the second half as Panama pressed into higher spots, but he still kept winning tackles as his area got very busy after halftime.
M, Jermaine Jones, 6 -- He was the slightly more offensive-minded holding midfielder in Bob Bradley's 4-2-3-1. That's unlike other Gold Cup contests, when the coach's son tended to lean a bit farther forward. Jones clicked on a couple of connections into dangerous spots in the first half, then shared some struggles in distribution afterward. A huge plus for his night: Jones managed to avoid the yellow card that would have sidelined him for Saturday's final.
M, Alejandro Bedoya, 5 -- A far less effective night than in his breakout performance Sunday against Jamaica -- but this was always going to be a tougher test, against a burly side that defends in two well-organized lines. The right-sided attacker did deliver one telling cross for Clint Dempsey, although nothing came of it. Otherwise, he was busy and did draw a yellow card on the equally involved Cooper, but Bedoya won't remember this as one of his better nights.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 3 -- His first half was a cavalcade of heavy touches, hurried passes and clumsy movement. Stationed as the creator behind striker Juan Agudelo, he just couldn't find areas to gather possession and do something productive it. Kljestan certainly didn't reward Bradley for keeping him in the lineup over Donovan. His evening in a word: nightmare.
M, Clint Dempsey, 7 -- Once again Dempsey found ways to boost his team, specifically with a critical 77th-minute goal. In a tight match with precious few chances, Dempsey did his thing, inserting himself aggressively into the right spot to tuck home Landon Donovan's pinpoint ball to the far post. Early, stationed on the left in the 4-2-3-1, Dempsey drifted inside to find Bedoya a few times in good spots. Later, he moved into the hole behind the striker, then later still up to the forward spot himself as he continues to serve effectively as Bradley's utility knife on the attack.
F, Juan Agudelo, 6 -- The young forward seemed to be involved in every U.S. chance and half-chance in the first half. And it wasn't easy in there; Santos Laguna center back Felipe Baloy is a force along Panama's back line. Agudelo lost quite a few individual duals with Baloy, but he found other ways to move, press, vary his positioning, etc. His 25th-minute header off the post was easily the best U.S. chance until Dempsey's goal much later. He was only in there due to Jozy Altidore's injury misfortune; but Agudelo may just prove to be the better option as a lone striker.
M, Landon Donovan, 6 -- This is why you get Donovan on the field. In all honesty, his larger body of work Wednesday was average, at least by the all-time leading scorer's high standards. But that doesn't matter, because Donovan manufactured a massive moment, exploiting some strangely passive Panamanian defending to create the goal. Given time and space, he picked out the perfect spot to aim a ball for Dempsey and then delivered the goods.
M, Freddy Adu, 6 -- What a shocker to see the little guy standing at midfield, ready to make his first appearance in two years. And Adu made the coach look good for the choice, entering for the tiring Agudelo in the 66th. Adu usually made good, quick choices with the ball. Don't underestimate his part in the goal, which might turn out to be the biggest U.S. strike of 2011. Adu was decisive as he cradled a ball at midfield and then immediately released it into space for Donovan.
Coach Bob Bradley -- You can't say Bradley won't make the difficult call. His choice to keep Donovan, the U.S. all-time leading scorer, on the bench at kickoff certainly was a bold stroke. When things began breaking down after halftime, with his team losing the midfield, Bradley adjusted once and then one more time, probing for something that worked. If the choice to keep Donovan on the bench nearly came back to haunt the coach (Kljestan was out of his depth in this one, for sure), then the decision to insert Adu evened out Bradley's night. It's the overall management of the curious case of Freddy Adu that stands out here. Bradley said Adu's practices weren't great early, but improved gradually through Gold Cup sessions. So the surprise choice to call in the former wunderkind, once looking like a major bust and a blemish on Bradley's résumé, paid handsomely as Adu exploited the opportunity in a big way Wednesday.