Photo by Hunter Dorton/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
HOUSTON – The U.S. men's national team may be downplaying that its semifinal match against Panama is a chance at redemption, but that doesn't mean the Americans aren't hoping for a little payback.
The United States takes on Panama for the second time in the Gold Cup on Wednesday night (7 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel/Univision), and the match at Reliant Stadium won't only provide the U.S. team with a chance to reach its fourth consecutive Gold Cup final. It will also give head coach Bob Bradley and his team an opportunity to exact revenge against a Panama side that handed it its first-ever Gold Cup group stage loss just 11 days ago in Tampa, Fla.
"I will say we were disappointed with how we played against Panama so having the opportunity to redeem ourselves is nice," Landon Donovan said at Tuesday's press conference.
The two teams enter the game under somewhat different circumstances. The United States is fresh off its most complete performance of the tournament, a 2-0 win over a previously undefeated Jamaican team that had not conceded a goal in group play. Panama, on the other hand, is coming off a tough, penalty kick victory over El Salvador that was physically and mentally taxing.
What both teams do have in common entering this match is that they both will be without their top striker. Jozy Altidore suffered a hamstring injury in the early moments of the Jamaica game, while Panama lost Blas Perez to a red card following the end of regulation against El Salvador.
"Anytime you lose one of your prolific players, it's difficult," Tim Howard said. "You have to bring a guy in who can match him or surpass that. It's not always easy when you're talking about your best players. I don't know how they'll cope."
That Carlos Bocanegra and the U.S. defense won't have to go up against Perez is just one of the many aspects that gives the Americans reason to believe Wednesday's match will be different from the first time they played Panama. Eric Lichaj is now the left back, Bocanegra has moved to centerback and the United States is playing a much-improved style of soccer. Those variables have the United States brimming with confidence.
"The key here is just continuing to do what we did against Jamaica," Clint Dempsey said. "Continue taking the game to them, be strong defensively and really not give them a chance to breathe, don't give them too many chances, and just keep taking the game to them.
"If they sit back – I don't know what they're going to do – but make sure we're confident in our passing, just how we did against Jamaica. Be able to find players in between lines, be able to be confident in the attacking third, be able to create chances and hopefully finish one or two. If we get a goal, it's going to put a lot of pressure on them. They're going to have to open up."
With captain Felipe Baloy manning Panama's defense, the United States is likely going to need a big performance from Juan Agudelo, who seems like the odds-on favorite to replace Altidore in the starting lineup.
Agudelo fared well as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1 formation against Jamaica, but he struggled to make much happen against Panama in the group match. Agudelo seems to be eager to make up for his flat showing that day, tweeting "Off to Houston,rr, revenge rematch" the day the U.S. team departed Washington, D.C.
An improved Agudelo outing won't be the only big change the U.S. team needs. It'll also need an improved collective effort defensively, especially in the early moments of the match. Despite winning its past two games by a combined score of 3-0, the United States almost surrendered a goal in the opening minutes of each match.
Against Gabriel Gomez, Luis Tejada and the rest of Los Canaleros' skillful attack, the U.S. defense will need to be more focused as well. In the group match, Panama netted in part because of a blown assignment by Altidore following a set piece and on a penalty kick, two goals the Americans know they shouldn't have given up.
"We gave up two soft goals, that was the biggest thing," Bocanegra said. "A few defensive lapses and other than that, we pounded them, we peppered them for most of the game. We had to push it so we had to open ourselves up a little bit and they would get a few counterattacks here and there. This game we just need to be sharper defensively."
Do that and the Americans won't only completely forget about the group stage loss to Panama — they'll also accomplish their goal of reaching the final.