2011 Gold Cup: USA V. Panama Preview

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2011 Gold Cup: USA V. Panama Preview
J. Meric/Getty Images

This article originally appeared on SoccReligious.

The U.S. Men's National Team looks to exact revenge for its first ever loss in Gold Cup group stage play as they take on their conquerors, Panama, in Wednesday's first semifinal at 7 p.m. EST.

After falling to Los Canaleros 2-1 in the second game of Group C play, the American soccer scene was in turmoil. Bob Bradley's seat was hotter than hell's recliners as America's favorite scapegoat absorbed much of the brunt for a historically awful loss, and fairly so—the U.S. are a better, more talented team than the Panamanians, and any such loss should be met with both disappointment and criticism.

However, after rewatching the game film—credit a tasty concoction of journalistic impartiality, CONCACAF TV's On Demand Feature and liquid courage—it became clear that Bradley's tactics weren't necessarily to blame.

 

Reviewing the Loss

By most measurable standards, the U.S. were superior to the Panamanians that night. The Yanks had over twice as much possession of the ball (67 percent to 33 percent), twice as many shots on goal (eight to four), completed twice as many passes (509 to 250) at a more accurate rate (83 percent to 70 percent) and sent in nearly three times as many crosses (28 to 11) as compared to their foes.

What that indicates is that, tactically, Bradley wasn't incorrect in his approach to the game. He put his players in a position to dominate. The opportunities were there, but the players didn't seize.

Yet, two sets of numbers stick out like blubber in hole-ridden Spanx:

  • Zero: The number of times the U.S. were called offside. The Americans' possession was primarily enjoyed back the back four and the midfield pair of Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley. Especially after the first goal (but even before), Panama put 10 defenders behind the ball and let the U.S. possess in front of them while clogging up their defensive end. Instead of looking to get behind the defense or making intelligent runs of the ball, however, the Jones and Bradley dropped in deep to spray long balls over the top, of which the dominant Felipe Baloy won the lion's share. Meanwhile, Landon Donovan twiddled this thumbs passively, the U.S. forwards played with their backs to the goal and everyone not named Clint Dempsey shied away from assuming any playmaking duties. 
  • 47 to 37: Duels won by Panama to duels won by the U.S. The American passivity is most clearly expressed here, as the Panamanians were quicker to the second ball all night. There's nothing tactical about determination, folks. Perhaps Bradley should do more to motivate his guys, but I have a hard time believing professional athletes need help getting fired up for a big international match. 

The Second Go-Round

Projected starters USA v. Panama Gold Cup Semifinal

What does that mean for each side? Both teams could be without a key forward. The Panamanians will definitely take the field without Blas Perez, a huge loss considering the experience he brings to the side (he's scored in each of the last three Gold Cups). The Americans may be sans Jozy Altidore thanks to a gimpy hamstring.

Expect the Americans to once again go 4-2-3-1. Landon Donovan should replace Alejandro Bedoya on the right, while one of Juan Agudelo (likely) or Chris Wondolowski (less likely) will replace Altidore should his leg not be ready to go. The rest of the lineup should remain the same. 

There is a slight chance Bradley could move Dempsey or Sacha Kljestan beside or just off Agudelo in a 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1, but the play against Jamaica leads me to believe Bradley will stick with his guns in the 4-2-3-1. This will free Kljestan, Dempsey and Donovan to interchange taking control of the hole between the Panamanian back line and midfield. 

Panama, meanwhile, presents more of a question. I would speculate Julio Dely Valdes would maintain the same strategy as he did last time, throwing out a defensive 4-4-2 and looking to counter. Valdes has experimented with his back four throughout the tournament, but captain Felipe Baloy and Roman Torres, who has been battling tendinitis, should partner in the center, with midfield stabilizer Gabriel Gomez in front of them and forward Luis Tejada forming a powerful spine.

With Perez out, Valdes could go 4-2-3-1 as he did in the final minutes against the U.S. and bring on Gabriel Torres, Eybir Bonaga or Alberto Quintero to throw more bodies in the midfield. This would be smart, as matching the U.S. formation would ensure a more physical, combative game of one-on-one duels (remember that 47 to 37 statistic?), as opposed to a tactical chess match of positioning and spatial relation.  My guess is, instead, he'll simply swap man for man and bring on Luis Renteria to partner with Tejada in a 4-4-2 out of comfort. 

Either way, expect more of the same strategy-wise from the Panamanians: crushing, physical play, quick countering and congested defending. 

Rather than huffing the ball around the back before impatiently launching a diagonal ball into the 18, the U.S. must be dynamic and patient in the attack. Expect to see Dempsey cutting in to link up with Kljestan and Agudelo, who will be working the field side to side in an effort to open up holes for the midfield runners. 

The U.S. would be smart to trim that 28 crosses down to the high teens, while focusing more of its attack down the center. If the Americans can work from inside out—penetrating the Panamanian defense first and then sending the ball wide to the fullbacks—rather than from the outside in, they'll stand a better chance of wearing down the resilient La Marea Roja and breaking through first.

Players to Watch

Landon Donovan, USA: Donovan has been quiet all Gold Cup, and it's time for him to wake up. His benching against Jamaica may have been primarily because of his late arrival into D.C. from his sister's wedding, but part of it was his poor form. Now that he's been eclipsed by Dempsey as the best American outfield player, it will be interesting to see if he continues his King James-like deference or if he rises to the occasion.

Sacha Kljestan, USA: One of the most polarizing players in the national pool, Kljestan has come into a solid run of form of late to earn significant minutes in the Gold Cup. If he gets the start, he'll need to find the space in the center and facilitate play with incisive passing and quick touches. His technical ability could be the key that unlocks the stifling Panamanian defense, but he'll have to fend off that plaguing malady he's always battled in the red, white, and blue: inconsistency.

Gabriel Gomez, PAN: With the spotlight shining mostly on Tejada and the now-suspended Perez, Gomez has quietly been one of the most dominating forces in the Gold Cup. He's a player comparable to Shalrie Joseph: both physical and technical with the ability to dominate both ends of the field.  His incisive pass led to the first goal for Panama against the U.S., and his penalty sealed the deal. Most of his work this game may be off of the ball, but the fate of the Panamanians rests on the shoulders of their midfield engine.

Luis Tejada, PAN: Tejada is one of the prizes of this year's Gold Cup, a prospect many MLS sides are drooling over—and for good reason. He has it all: speed, size and a goal scorer's instinct. Carlos Bocanegra and Clarence Goodson have been impenetrable since teaming up in the center of the U.S. defense, but Tejada might be their toughest test yet.

 

Prediction

Agudelo gets a poacher's goal off of great work from Dempsey and Kljestan, while Donovan earns and buries a penalty—all in the first half. The Americans add a third in the second half on a set piece, knocking out Panama for the third consecutive Gold Cup and advancing to the final. 3-0 USA.

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