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Bradley scores, but Dempsey still the difference in USA's draw vs. Panama

Michael Bradley scored the goal, but Clint Dempsey was the difference for the U.S. in its 1-1 draw with Panama in the Gold Cup. 

The indefatigable Michael Bradley scored early in the second half on Monday night in Kansas City to lift the struggling U.S. national team to a 1-1 draw against Panama in the final game of the CONCACAF Gold Cup’s group stage.

The Americans entered the match having already sealed passage to Saturday’s quarterfinal, while Panama was desperate for a good result (the U.S.’s next opponent and Panama’s fate will be determined over the next two days). Fittingly, Los Canaleros started the game with vigor and took a deserved first-half lead. Although the U.S. demonstrated very little of the cohesion and chemistry it hoped to establish before the knockout rounds, it did pull level thanks to a few reliable qualities—resilience, good goalkeeping and the inventiveness of Clint Dempsey.

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Monday’s tie marked only the fourth time in 34 Gold Cup group stage games that the U.S. failed to win. However, the 1-1 score will be far less disconcerting than the performance, which improved after halftime but remains significantly below the team’s championship potential.

Here are three thoughts from the Group A finale:

Dempsey proved his worth again

Bradley scored the goal and Alejandro Bedoya, making his first appearance at this Gold Cup, will be credited with the assist. But make no mistake. It was Clint Dempsey’s skill and improvisational ingenuity that made the difference for the U.S.—again.

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Before the tournament, there were questions about how Dempsey, 32, would respond to losing his captaincy. Was he being ushered toward slowly the door? They’ve been answered emphatically. Without him, the Americans’ Gold Cup run already might be over. He scored both goals in the 2-1 win over Honduras and then netted his third of the tournament in the 1-0 defeat of Haiti. He was given the first half off on Monday, offering U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann the opportunity to get a look at Gyasi Zardes up front alongside Chris Wondolowski. The manager already knew what he’d get from Dempsey, which is probably why he inserted the veteran following a first half that may have been the Americans’ worst of the tournament.

In the 55th minute, Dempsey’s give-and-go with Zardes broke down and the ball fell to Dempsey on a deflection. He made the most of his good fortune, playing a spectacular pass with the outside of his right foot as he fell backward. Bedoya, streaking through the left side of the penalty area, met the ball then hit a perfect cross to Bradley for the one-time finish.

The U.S. could barely find its way across the field during the first half. In the second, it scored, created several more chances and forced Panama into a far more even game. Wondolowski didn’t play badly, but Dempsey’s introduction injected the creativity and class the Americans needed to get back into the match.

Questions and issues remain in back

Klinsmann on Monday started the same four defenders he chose in the opener against Honduras—outside backs Fabian Johnson and Timmy Chandler and center backs John Brooks and Ventura Alvarado. None of them started Friday against Haiti. Johnson played as a substitute.

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The latter three had a few rough moments against Los Catrachos, leaving Klinsmann to come to their defense. The manager said he liked the way Chandler responded after mistakes and that Brooks and Alvarado would reach their considerable potential only with additional games. Klinsmann’s decision to start them again against Panama, especially over the likes of Omar Gonzalez and the effective Brad Evans, represented a vote of confidence.

Klinsmann likely will be asked to explain his thinking again. The back four was poor and the U.S. was fortunate to yield only one goal. Brad Guzan was excellent once again in net and the Americans’ second-half improvement forced Panama to exert a bit more effort defending.

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Brooks and Alvarado, beaten soundly on Honduras’s goal in the opener, were torn apart again on Monday. FC Dallas’ Blas Pérez, Panama’s iconic striker, started and finished the 34th-minute play. He clipped a pass into the penalty area for Luis Tejada, who appeared to be offside. But no whistle blew and Alvarado was able to establish position. Then Tejada turned and blew by the U.S. defender anyway. Brooks wasn’t quick enough recognizing the near-post run from Pérez, who finished Tejada’s cross cleanly.

In the 16th, Brooks was shown a yellow card after a midfield foul on Pérez and in the 43rd, Chandler was forced to pull down Panama’s Alberto Quintero after a bad turnover. He earned a yellow card as well. Overall, the defensive quartet looked shaky and struggled playing the ball out of the back—something that Klinsmann values. The hosts’ difficulty with possession, especially in the first half, started there.

Brooks improved noticeably in the second half, but he’s now suspended for Saturday’s quarterfinal due to yellow card accumulation. Klinsmann’s public backing of Chandler and Alvarado suggests he’ll stick with them in Baltimore, but they’ll have to be better as the stakes increase.

U.S. is running short on time

The Americans won their group, but didn’t look good doing it. They never were in control for sustained periods, lacked sharpness and cohesion with the ball and were outshot by a combined 51-20 in the three first-round games, according to ESPN. After both the Honduras and Haiti games, U.S. players recognized the need to be better. It hasn’t happened. Now, the margin for error is gone.

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The U.S. had nothing to play for on Monday, save intangibles like momentum and pride. Those matter, and certainly played a role as the game opened up at sweltering Sporting Park. The U.S. never stopped running.

“It’s always tricky when you have one team who’s advanced, won the group, and another team playing for everything,” Bradley told Fox following the game. “At the end of the day, we’ll take our seven points, first in the group. Now all the focus goes to the quarterfinal in Baltimore on Saturday.”

The next four days will be more important than Monday. They may help define Klinsmann’s year. He’s got four days to figure out a way to put his team in position to exert a bit more control over a game. Mexico or Costa Rica may finish the chances Panama and Haiti wasted. The U.S. is playing the reactive soccer Klinsmann has pledged to avoid, and apart from Bradley, Dempsey, Guzan and Johnson, there are question marks everywhere.

Jozy Altidore, who’s been battling back from an injured hamstring, didn’t play Monday. Neither did midfielder Graham Zusi, who also had suffered a knock. Their immediate Gold Cup futures are in question. After three group games, we still don’t know what the U.S. should look like when it’s at its best, and that’s something Klinsmann needs to figure out. Perhaps that means shaking up the roster with some of the six changes he’s allowed to make by Tuesday night. The likes of Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley and Juan Agudelo are available. Or perhaps it means sticking with more experienced players like Gonzalez, Evans and Bedoya.

By the time the U.S. takes the field on Saturday, it will have been together for nearly three weeks and played four games (including the friendly against Guatemala). There will be no more excuses.