Coach Bradley stayed with the lineup that beat Jamaica as Clint Dempsey scored with 15 minutes left to give the U.S. the victory and a place in Saturday’s Gold Cup final against Mexico.
Striker Jozy Altidore pulled up with a strained hamstring eight minutes into the game against Jamaica and is likely out for another six to eight weeks. That gave Juan Aguedelo, his replacement, the start against Panama, but all the talk was about the coach’s decision to leave Donovan on the bench for the second match in a row, giving the U.S. a shape that looked like this:
Steve Cherundolo -- Clarence Goodson -- Carlos Bocanegra -- Eric Lichaj
Michael Bradley ----- Jermaine Jones
Alejandro Bedoya --- Sacha Kljestan --- Clint Dempsey
The U.S. had the upper hand in possession—53 percent to 47 percent—but found it difficult to break through the well-organized Panamanian team. Defense-wise, Panama used two banks of four as the U.S. tried to run its offense through the center.
The U.S. tried to build plays that began with their defenders but Panama worked hard, putting pressure on the ball to force bad passes. When the U.S. launched the ball forward, Panama’s strong center backs, Baloy and Torres, were there to disrupt the plays.
The U.S. dominated the center which pulled Panama’s wide players into the middle. That created space on the wings which U.S. defenders, Eric Lichaj and Steve Cherundolo had been working and which, prior to the goal, resulted in the best attempt.
In the second half, Bradley replaced Kljestan with Donovan, but his team looked slow and predictable and Panama looked like they might be able to log another upset. All of that turned with a play that, given the rest of the game, was unusual: a U.S. counter-strike.
Bradley brought on long-time U.S. fan favorite, soccer messiah and head-case, Freddy Adu for Agudelo. Dempsey moved to the front, Adu played in behind him, and Donovan moved to the left.
Panama had a corner, the U.S. took control, broke quickly upfield, Adu made a great pass to Donovan who delivered a perfect pass to Dempsey who tapped it in at the far post. Dempsey took a moment to celebrate his goal then turned and pointed at Donovan, acknowledging the great pass and timing that made the goal possible.
That goal, which came in the 76th minute, deflated Panama and put the U.S. into the final. It did little, however, to quiet the “Fire Bradley” crowd. To be sure, the goal was less about Bradley getting the tactics right and was more about the quality of the players involved.
It was a great goal that came from three of America's best players. Looking at the difference of quality of players, the U.S. should defeat teams like Jamaica and Panama. Problems come with teams that are well coached and well organized in the midfield, teams such as Panama and Ghana.
In both of those games, Coach Bradley has shown that he is good at spotting places for tactical substitutions. But he’s also shown he gets the starting eleven wrong.
Defeating Mexico in Saturday’s Gold Cup will give the U.S. a place in the Confederations Cup, a tournament played between the winners of eight regional tournaments, world players such as Spain, Brazil, and Japan.
The U.S. has the population and the resources to create a team that is capable of taking on the best national teams but it’s lacking in experience and tournaments such as the Confederations Cup are necessary for further development.
For Bradley, getting his midfield strategy right from the start of the game will be necessary if he wants to keep his job.