The United States men's national team finishes group play at the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup on Monday with a match against Panama at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Missouri.
After claiming victories over Honduras and Haiti in its first two group games, the U.S. has already clinched first place in Group A and qualified for the quarterfinals. Panama, on the other hand, drew against the same two opponents and will need a result to reach the knockout stage.
Keep reading for our preview of the match.
Date: Monday, July 13
Time: 9:30 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1, UniMas (US)
Live Stream: Fox Sports Go (US)
Squad rotation and tinkering
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made seven changes to his team for the second group match against Haiti, selecting an all-new back line following the hard-fought victory over Honduras. With just three days between matches and with the U.S. already confirmed as Group A winners, Klinsmann could be set to rotate his squad heavily again for Panama.
Speaking to reporters after the Haiti game, Klinsmann said, per USSoccer.com:
We had the privilege to make a lot of changes and give almost everybody the experience. Now we also have a privilege to handle the third match the way we want to from a coach’s perspective because we already won the group. It’s very nice and a compliment to the team, but it was a lot of work as you saw.
That should serve as a strong hint that Klinsmann intends to make changes. After introducing four new starters in the back line against Haiti, he could bring back the four from the opening game, which would mean another chance for Ventura Alvarado and John Brooks to play together.
In addition, Klinsmann might rethink his formation. For the Haiti game, the former German international switched from a 4-4-2 diamond to a 4-3-1-2, a change that failed to produce the intended results against Haiti's fast attackers.
Whatever the case, Klinsmann's own words strongly suggest he intends to tinker with his team in the final group game.
Zardes the difference-maker
After watching the U.S. struggle through the first half against Haiti, Klinsmann made two important changes at halftime, introducing Gyasi Zardes as a substitute and switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Both moves paid off richly. Zardes set up the game's only goal in the 47th minute with an excellent pullback to Clint Dempsey, who finished for his third strike of the tournament. And in the altered formation, the U.S. was much more comfortable in possession and better equipped to deal with Haiti's rapid counters.
Klinsmann praised the 23-year-old Zardes after the game, telling the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com): "Gyasi has the special talent to take people on. He has a lot of talent and a lot of potential. We just want to tell him every day, 'One step at a time.' It's a real joy to work with him."
Zardes, a forward, entered the match as a wide midfielder but finished in an advanced role after Klinsmann withdrew Aron Johannsson. With Jozy Altidore struggling for form and full fitness, Zardes could represent a better option in the attack, as Joe Tansey has written for Bleacher Report:
Since he has a game to experiment with his lineup before the knockout round, Klinsmann should sit Altidore and start Zardes to see what the young player can do in one of the two forward positions in whatever formation the USMNT boss uses. Despite changing formations constantly during his reign, Klinsmann has usually preferred to start two forwards.
While some may argue Zardes should bring his speed to the left side of midfield, it was apparent in the win over Honduras that he doesn't have the defensive tracking ability someone in that role should have. And that is perfectly fine. Zardes is a forward and he should be able to highlight his talents in a role he prefers.
Monday's game will be a rematch of the 2013 Gold Cup final, in which the U.S. defeated Panama 1-0. It will also stir up memories of the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifying cycle, which saw the Americans eliminate Panama from contention in dramatic style.
It was October 2013, and the U.S. had already clinched qualification for the World Cup. Panama was looking to do the same by beating the Americans on home soil, which would have clinched a fourth-place finish in the CONCACAF Hexagonal and sent the Canaleros to an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand with a World Cup berth on the line.
Panama led 2-1 when the match reached 90 minutes, but the U.S. scored twice in stoppage time through Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson. The 3-2 win for the U.S. ended Panama's hopes of qualification and instead sent Mexico to the playoff, which El Tri won.
Monday will represent a chance for Panama to take some form of revenge. Beating the Americans wouldn't bring back the lost World Cup berth, but it would send the Canaleros into the next round and perhaps ease some of the pain from that incredible night nearly two years ago.