With familiar Gold Cup foes USA and Panama both guaranteed advancement after their group finale, both opted to make numerous lineup changes, resulting in a largely ugly match devoid of quality finishing. Except for one moment.
Jozy Altidore's 66th-minute bicycle kick at the goalmouth gave the USA a 1-0 win over Panama, one that secured a first-place group finish for the Americans and a quarterfinal date vs. surprise package Curaçao. Panama, which, like the U.S. had already clinched its knockout berth with wins over Guyana and Trinidad & Tobago, will face Jamaica in another quarterfinal, with the winners of those two matches meeting in the semifinals.
With that quarterfinal berth already in tow and rest/avoiding yellow card suspensions in mind, Gregg Berhalter completely rotated his squad. After starting the same XI in the first two matches, the U.S. manager elected to start a completely new lineup on Wednesday. That included a start for Altidore, who had been working his way up to full speed under Berhalter's watch, and the captain's armband being given to Omar Gonzalez, who paired with Matt Miazga in central defense.
Panama followed suit with the same line of thinking, making nine changes to its lineup with an eye on the big picture.
As expected with so many changes, the opening minutes offered unpredictable, disjointed sequences. Harold Cummings made an important block to prevent a U.S. chance on goal in the early going, but it was an otherwise docile start.
The U.S. had nearly 60% of the possession over the opening quarter of an hour but had trouble turning it into opportunities. The first one came just before the 16th-minute mark, when Altidore received a pass on the right channel from Jordan Morris and hooked a low chance just by the far post.
Altidore forced a save from Jose Calderon four minutes later. The U.S. worked a nice combination down the right-hand side, with Cristian Roldan slipping Altidore a nice cutback pass. His left-footed chance was stuffed by the Panama goalkeeper, though, and the rebound was cleared to safety.
U.S. goalkeeper Sean Johnson was forced into his first save in the 32nd minute, when Jose Fajardo got in behind the defense to receive a long pass from Panama's own half, only to turn his chance right at the NYCFC backstop.
Fajardo had another golden opportunity five minutes later. He beat Gonzalez pace to get in behind off another long ball from the Panama half, but he shanked his chance after the U.S. defender recovered, failing to test Johnson.
The disjointed play continued on into the second half. For all the USA's possession–a 63% figure in the first half that grew slightly over the first 15 minutes in the second–it all largely broke down in the final third. The last balls just weren't there, with players either too predictable or too out of sync to unlock the Panamanian defense.
Moments after Christian Pulisic came on as a potential game-changer for the U.S., the Americans broke through. It came off a corner kick, as Djordje Mihailovic's service was headed back toward goal by Miazga. Panama failed to clear, heading it up toward the goalmouth, and an instinctive Altidore turned a bicycle kick in for his 42nd career international goal and the one that gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead.
That was ultimately all the U.S. would need to go through as a group winner, outscoring its three opponents 11-0 in a trio of victories, surely a welcome stat after friendly losses to Jamaica and Venezuela that preceded the competition.
Here were the lineups for the night:
Here are the rosters for both sides:
GOALKEEPERS: Sean Johnson (New York City FC), Tyler Miller (LAFC), Zack Steffen (Manchester City)
DEFENDERS: Reggie Cannon (FC Dallas), Omar Gonzalez (Toronto FC), Nick Lima (San Jose Earthquakes), Aaron Long (New York Red Bulls), Daniel Lovitz (Montreal Impact), Matt Miazga (Chelsea), Tim Ream (Fulham), Walker Zimmerman (LAFC)
MIDFIELDERS: Michael Bradley (Toronto FC), Weston McKennie (Schalke), Djordje Mihailovic (Chicago Fire), Christian Pulisic (Chelsea), Cristian Roldan (Seattle Sounders), Wil Trapp (Columbus Crew)
FORWARDS: Jozy Altidore (Toronto FC), Paul Arriola (D.C. United), Tyler Boyd (Vitória Guimãres), Jonathan Lewis (Colorado Rapids), Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders), Gyasi Zardes (Columbus Crew)
GOALKEEPERS: Luis Mejía (Nacional), José Calderón (Comunicaciones), Orlando Mosquera (Tauro)
DEFENDERS: Harold Cummings (San Jose Earthquakes), Erick Davis (Dunajská Streda), Fidel Escobar (Correcaminos), Kevin Galván (Sporting San Miguelito), Adolfo Machado (The Strongest), Michael Murillo (New York Red Bulls), Francisco Palacios (San Francisco), Román Torres (Seattle Sounders)
MIDFIELDERS: Édgar Bárcenas (Oviedo), Omar Browne (Montreal Impact), Armando Cooper (Maccabi Petah Tikva), Alberto Quintero (Universitario), José Luis Rodríguez (Alaves B), Marcos Sánchez (Tauro)
FORWARDS: Abdiel Arroyo (Arabe Unido), Rolando Blackburn (The Strongest), José Fajardo (Al-Kawkab), Gabriel Torres (Universidad de Chile)