[USA CONFIDENTIAL] Defender and captain Carlos Bocanegra says he expects his team will eliminate the defensive lapses that yielded a 2-1 loss to Panama in the group phase when the Americans take on the Central American nation again in the Gold Cup semifinals.
To some, beating Guadeloupe (1-0) in the group phase and Jamaica (2-0) in the quarterfinals might constitute a Gold Cup renaissance for the U.S. team after losing to Panama, 2-1, which it faces again Wednesday in the semifinals (7 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel, Univision).
Yet captain Bocanegra, while acknowledging Panama is a rematch he and his teammates wanted, doesn’t believe the team’s performances have fluctuated all that much in the four games played so far.
“It’s obviously a whole new lease on life, the knockout phases, but going back to our group stage, I don’t think we played terribly,” said Bocanegra, who during the tournament has been moved to centerback from left back. “If we get a goal here or there, we get a draw against Panama, and maybe this changes the whole kind of mindset of America or whatever.
“We’re still working hard and we know we didn’t play our best game against Panama. We gave up two soft goals on defensive lapses but we pressed on and we attacked, so we were creating opportunities in that game, we created a lot of opportunities against Canada [a 2-0 win], I missed a good chance against Canada as well. We had chances in the Guadeloupe game, and they just weren’t going in.”
Bocanegra was right in the middle of Defensive Lapse No. 1, from which Panama scored an embarrassingly ugly goal to take a 1-0 lead in the 19th minute.
After a Panamanian free kick came back off the defensive wall, Gabriel Gomez drove a diagonal cross to the back post, where Blas Perez evaded Jozy Altidore and glided in behind Bocanegra to head a shot keeper Tim Howard parried but couldn’t smother. As Goodson scrambled to clear the ball both he and Luis Tejada got a touch that diverted the ball over the goal line.
“There was a little bit of a communication error,” says Bocanegra, who was marking up another attacker and couldn’t get to the ball before Perez. “We spoke about that afterwards and it’s sorted out. To be fair, maybe Jozy shouldn’t have even been in that spot in the first place if we had brought a defender on the other side of the ball rather than being in the wall in case a runner comes on that side.
“There’s a lot of things going on and people see maybe one thing on the camera on what happens on a goal, but there’s a lot of other things that go into it.”
Perez also drew the foul committed by Tim Ream that produced Panama’s winning goal, a penalty kick converted by Gomez. Perez won’t play in the semifinal; he picked up a red card in a scuffle that followed the end of regulation in Panama’s quarterfinal conquest of El Salvador.
“A lot of Central American teams have a funny style of play and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way, but they’ll get a bit disorganized up front and sometimes that’s difficult to deal with,” says Bocanegra, who has played for clubs in England and France since leaving MLS after the 2003 season. “They don’t always play with as structured a formation as you’d see with a European team. They present problems.”
Since beating Guadeloupe, 3-2, and the USA, Panama hasn’t been all that impressive. It needed a very late equalizer by Tejada against Canada in the group finale to grab a 1-1 tie that won the group title and eliminated the Canadians on goal difference as a third-place team. In its quarterfinal, Tejada struck again – with his team-high third goal of the competition -- in the final minute to tie El Salvador, and after a half-hour of scoreless overtime Panama prevailed, 5-3, on penalty kicks.
Penalties were needed to separate the USA and Panama in the 2005 Gold Cup final, which the Americans won, 3-1, after regulation and overtime ended goalless. The USA has eliminated Panama by 2-1 scores in the last two Gold Cup quarterfinal rounds. Bocanegra and Landon Donovan scored in the 2007 meeting; two years ago, Kyle Beckerman scored in regulation and Kenny Cooper struck in overtime.
Since that first meeting in this Gold Cup, Ream has been replaced in the starting lineup; Bocanegra’s move into the middle opened up the left-back slot for Eric Lichaj. Coach Bob Bradley surprised the Jamaicans with a 4-5-1 formation in which Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan, used only as subs in the group phase, were given starting assignments and helped the USA dominate in midfield.
“I don’t want to be a jerk and put words in anybody’s mouth,” says Bocanegra of Jamaica, which won all three of its group games but seldom kicked into gear against the USA. “They played hard, a lot of them play in MLS, guys that I know, and they have a lot of good players. Sometimes in soccer it looks different from what you expect, and maybe in this game they sat back a little too much and were that little bit tentative against us. I thought we played pretty well, too, and that has to be factored into the equation.”
Of the somewhat bumpy road traveled by the USA to this point and getting another shot at Panama just 11 days later, rather than waiting maybe two more years, Bocanegra says, “I think for that game the media got all excited and sometimes it’s funny the stuff you read about what people are writing about the team, these guys have no heart, and there’s no leadership, and this, and that. We just laugh sometimes, ah, whatever.
“Yeah, everyone was pretty excited to see them come up again. We were disappointed and pissed-off at ourselves after the last game. We’re excited to get a rematch so quick. I think we’ve been progressing though the tournament and growing little by little each game, but we managed to put together a little bit of a better game against Jamaica, and we’re peaking at the right time.”