By Ridge Mahoney
Just as far too much angst and worry were expressed in the wake of a 2-1 loss to Honduras in February, the amount of euphoria and adulation lavished on the 2-0 defeat of Panama Tuesday is probably a bit much. But only a bit.
Absent main danger man Blas Perez, the Panamanian attack labored for most of the game to seriously test the U.S. back line. Central mids Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron dominated their Panamanian counterparts, and though Panama caused a few problems on the flanks, very few serves and crosses escaped the attention of center backs Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler.
Toss in two lethal finishes from Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson and you have a convincing win against a team that led the Hexagonal after three rounds but with two more games played has fallen to fifth. Yet Panama has not been a pushover for the U.S. in their last few meetings. The cohesion, polish, and energy displayed by the U.S. bodes well for the future, as do the choices made by coach Jurgen Klinsmann in his decisions about personnel and tactics.
Against Panama, either Clint Dempseyor Altidore would often float into a wide position as ball was moved forward, with the other staying high to occupy both centerbacks. This move enabled the U.S. to outman Panama on the flanks -- three-v-two much of the time -- and also put the central players in a quandary; do they slide outside to cover the extra man, or hold their positions to guard against runners coming through the middle?
One could argue against taking the team’s two most dangerous attackers out of the prime scoring area, but both players are adept at going wide or staying central. Dempsey’s role as a second forward demands considerable movement and he’s more than capable of hitting final passes as well as finishing them off. Altidore moved outside fewer times than did Dempsey, but did so effectively to link up with teammates, or turn with the ball.
A few of Dempsey’s chances during the Hexagonal have come from Altidore crosses or out of space created by him sliding back inside from a wide position. Dempsey headed a Bradley cross just over the bar against Jamaica after Altidore had dragged two opponents with him into the middle.
By occasionally pulling Altidore wide and leaving Dempsey up high as the U.S. flank players pushed upfield, confusion amongst the Panamanians opened up space in the middle for Cameron and Bradley. Altidore and Dempsey didn’t combine directly all that often in the Panama game, but one sequence produced an Altidore shot saved by keeper Jaime Penedo. Dempsey one-timed the rebound on the bounce and it hit the crossbar. In the second half Altidore drifted wide on a U.S. throw-in and hit an early cross towards Dempsey, though an opponent intervened and headed it clear.
For about a decade, left-footed balls played out of the back by Carlos Bocanegra have been a U.S. staple. At times, they were valuable, and at other times, they were simply lost possessions. In the current U.S. setup, Besler plays the left centerback position, and on Tuesday he delivered numerous good balls into the left channel for an array of teammates to collect. Panama’s attackers seldom applied early pressure to the U.S. defenders when possession changed hands, and Besler exploited the time allotted to him.
Once the U.S. gained possession, left back DaMarcus Beasley would push a few yards upfield and stick to the sideline, thus opening up a large gap between him and Besler. In the first half, Fabian Johnson ran onto several Besler balls to initiate passing sequences that involved the forwards and central mids. Besler also hit longer passes directed to Altidore or Dempsey that presented the Panama defenders with another set of threats. If a Panamanian player did step to Besler, that usually left Beasley open to accept a short pass and attack the space in front of him.
In just six international appearances, Besler has matured rapidly. He’s tough in the tackle, fairly quick over short distances, and is sharpening his reads and decisions. He’s shown the ability to play with different central partners, with Gonzalez apparently the first choice for the time being.
A good game by Cameron at central mid in place of Jermaine Jones adds to the options available for Klinsmann. No longer is there any doubt how valuable Bradley is to this team; concerns about Jones’ absence were alleviated early in the match, and Cameron’s role in both goals -- his tackle and pass to Bradley started the first sequence and he set up Eddie Johnson for the second goal with a great long ball -- adds to the options available for Klinsmann.
Fabian Johnson’s strong game at left mid lessened concerns about that position, and gave the U.S. – in the absence of the suspended Graham Zusi – a much different look on that side than provided by Zusi’s replacement, Eddie Johnson, on the right. Fabian Johnson’s great cross for Altidore’s goal came with his left foot and he fired a shot over the crossbar early in the match. He’s also shown during the Hexagonal a willingness to veer inside and shoot with his right. The debate over whether Landon Donovan should be recalled has prompted debate comparing him with Zusi as a right mid; during his career, Donovan has also played on the left, but with both Johnsons having played there effectively in recent games, there may be less need for Donovan.
The defeat of Panama moved the U.S. to the top of the Hexagonal standings and a crowd of more than 40,000 in Seattle -- which broke out into chants of :”We are going to Brazil!” in the aftermath of Eddie Johnson’s goal -- made for an unforgettable night. It’s just three points, and tougher games lie ahead, but the match all but obliterated bad memories of what happened in San Pedro Sula four months ago.