Behind two subpar performances to open CONCACAF Gold Cup group play, the U.S. men's national team faced arguably their toughest test against 2013 runner-up Panama on a sweltering Monday night. The game was about pride and momentum, and some gumption was required before the U.S. showed either in front of an announced crowd of 18,467 at Sporting Park.
Goals either side of halftime from Blas Pérez and Michael Bradley saw the Panamanians finish in third place with a slim chance of advancing to the knockout stages, while the Americans locked up top spot in Group A and a quarterfinal meeting with the Group B/C winner on July 18.
Jurgen Klinsmann reinstated the back four that scraped by Honduras in the opening match, replacing the quartet of Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Tim Ream, and Greg Garza that edged Haiti on Friday. Kyle Beckerman deputized for Mix Diskerud in his usual holding midfield role, flanked by Alfredo Morales and Alejandro Bedoya, who stepped in for Clint Dempsey and Graham Zusi. Gyasi Zardes and Chris Wondolowski partnered up front in place of Aron Johannsson and Jozy Altidore.
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It was Hernan Gomez's side that threatened first, however, as, Luis Tejada found the back of the net off a free kick in the 10th minute, but was correctly flagged offside by the assistant referee on the far sideline.
For much of the first half, Klinsmann's outfit continued to mold into a very deep, defensive shell, as Brad Guzan was required to make a number of saves throughout as Panama knocked on the door. Ten minutes shy of the halftime interval, though, the U.S. were punished.
Tejada was at the heart of the move once more, turning on Alvarado, darting toward the end line and crossing for a wide open Pérez to finish from close range in the 34th minute.
Two minutes short of halftime, Wondolowski looped a fantastic ball over the top of the Panamanian defense, sending Bedoya sprinting through on goal. The FC Nantes midfielder approached the top of the 18 when he appeared to be clipped from behind by Harold Cummings, but referee Roberto Garcia waved play on.
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The U.S. took two shots in a disappointing first half, which prompted Klinsmann to introduce Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin at the start of the second half.
Bradley, making one of his vintage, late runs to the back post, was rewarded in the 55th minute. Following an excellent buildup highlighted by tight exchanges from Dempsey and Zardes at the edge of the penalty area, the ball kicked out to Bedoya, who supplied a pinpointed delivery to the captain to finish it off and pull his side level.
The renewed intent and increased tempo culminated in a laborious effort to deny Panama in the late stages, as the U.S. cobbled seven points together to finish the group stage. Now, they'll await the results from Groups B and C in the next two days to determine their quarterfinal opponent in Baltimore in five days time.
United States Starting XI (subs):
Brad Guzan; Fabian Johnson, John Brooks, Ventura Alvarado, Timothy Chandler; Kyle Beckerman, Alfredo Morales (DeAndre Yedlin, 46'), Michael Bradley (C), Alejandro Bedoya (Aron Johannsson, 71'); Gyasi Zardes, Chris Wondolowski (Clint Dempsey, 46').
Panama Starting XI (subs):
Jaime Penedo; Roman Torres, Harold Cummings, Erick Davis, Valentin Pimentel (Miguel Camargo, 62'); Armando Cooper, Gabriel Gómez, Anibal Godoy, Alberto Quintero (Abdiel Arroyo, 86'); Blas Pérez, Luis Tejada (Roberto Nurse, 71').