Panama game showcased U.S. growth

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 Dempsey or 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.
9 comments about "Panama game showcased U.S. growth".
  1. James Froehlich, June 13, 2013 at 5:39 p.m.

    Totally agree on the positive analysis of the current status of the player pool and that while there is no longer a desperate need for LD's return, it will surely add to the potential of this team. I also agree that the initial post-game euphoria needs to be tempered just a bit. For me, the win was great, but more importantly was HOW the win was achieved. It showed a radical departure from teams of the past. The challenge will be to play at the same level and in the same way when teams now know what to expect and when the teams are stronger.

  2. Bill Anderson, June 13, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.

    Getting it done without Donovan is the greatest message coming out of this game. We have moved past the need for Donovan and all the good and bad things he brings with him. If Donovan wins the Gold Cup, then he deserves a possible recall. If the US don't win with Donovan at our B tournament, I doubt he would bring anything to the Full National Team except a whole lot of negative baggage.

  3. Kent James, June 14, 2013 at 12:31 a.m.

    Excellent game analysis. While I agree that the need for Donovan has been lessened, unless there are interpersonal clashes with either the players or the coach, or unless Donovan's play has dropped off markedly, I think he deserves to be in the mix. EJ had a great game, but he'll aways be a forward playing midfield; if we plan to have him play more offense than most midfielder's, I'm okay with that (but I wonder if a more defensive midfielder might have helped Evans more when he was struggling). One of the things that has always impressed me about LD is his defensive work. On the other side, I was impressed with Zusi, but I don't think he's the finisher LD is. So unless a lot has changed, the team will be better off with LD in the mix.

  4. R2 Dad, June 14, 2013 at 12:58 a.m.

    Liked your break-down of the game, reminded me of Beasley's barge into the box and almost-goal as another example of Panama's defensive confusion wrt assignments. Panama made us look good because there was no pressure on the ball, a situation we will not enjoy in Brazil.

  5. C K, June 14, 2013 at 7:21 a.m.

    Don't get me wrong, I'm thrilled that the US national team won and is in first place. Bravo!!! But let's not get overly excited. They beat Panama!!! Panama isn't exactly one of the top teams in the world and the fact that Panama was missing it's biggest scoring threat in Blas Perez makes this win less impressive. And I know that we beat Germany... Really? It was Germany's B team at best with only 2-3 eventual starters. We're making progress, for sure, but we have a long way to go. And to think that we can do without Langdon, is absolutely ridiculous... He's one of the best player we have. And if I were playing the US today my entire attack would expose our left side!! Weak... Like all of you, I'll enjoy our current success and hope that we develop over the next year to really compete in Brazil... And Mahoney, "...there may be less need for Donovan." Are you kidding me? Let's get Donovan back on the line-up!

  6. Charles Stamos, June 14, 2013 at 10:35 a.m.

    Nice analysis - Donovan would be a good addition to the squad, but he may be playable only as a sub at attacking midfield when we need some offense. Nice ro see more than 11 best players available as injury and suspensions are reality. Let's see how we do against Mexico, Costa Rica, and our away games before we get too high on this team. Still lots of work to do to get to World Class levels.

  7. David Sirias, June 14, 2013 at 1:08 p.m.

    I know this article is meant to address the overall contributions that led to the victory. But it misses the most important point : the USA can and should play without JJ against most teams. Why ? Because Cameron is a beast dedicated d-mid who does not get into Mike's space and allows Mike to play a true box to box role where his attacking skills always play a role when the USA looks good. J Jones is a beast as well but he is always forcing Mike to play deeper In myriad games with jones and Bradley paired we look mediocre to very bad. Only in 2 games has the partnership looked good. Jones is not tidy and is not disciplined. That cannot exist with Bradley as the partner. It's like a Gerrard - Lampard thing. On paper it looks good but it doesn't work. Same here. Cameron is the game changer He has Beckerman's brain but ya ya toure's body and motor He frees mike. And if mike is free and jozy has a partner the USA always has an attack--something mostly lacking under Klinsmann

    Credit to Klinsmann. He made the right move with Cameron-- playing him where many of us have been clamoring And he moved Dempsey higher as a true second striker -- the only place where Dempsey thrives and necessary for Jozy's success

  8. Allan Lindh, June 14, 2013 at 11:30 p.m.

    Gee, where are all those nice people who insisted that:
    1. Altidore was useless, and
    2. Cameron was useless.
    Altidore is scoring more in a decent league than ANY US forward ever. And Cameron is one of the few (3 or 4) Yanks to ever play day in day out in the field for a mid-table EPL team. So now we almost have enough sandwiches for a small picnic, but we still need Landon to come off the bench for the attack when someone's injured or out of gas. And Jermaine Jones should have to go to the Gold Cup and win his job back.

  9. Kent James, June 26, 2013 at 11:51 a.m.

    David, excellent analysis. The team looked much better with Cameron than with Jones. I hope JK noticed that...

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