It’s true that the USA has a Panama problem. Los Canaleros are the only team that ever beat the USA in a first-round Gold Cup game, in 2011, in the tournament launched 1991.
More recently, at the last Gold Cup, in 2015, the USA tied Panama, 1-1, in group play and lost to Los Caneleros in the third-place game in a penalty-kick shootout after a 1-1 tie.
The 2011 loss came under Coach Bob Bradley and the other two games in the Jurgen Klinsmann era. Since Bruce Arena took the helm, in his second competitive game in charge, the USA tied at Panama, 1-1, in a World Cup qualifier three months ago.
Panama has established itself as an opponent that’s difficult for the USA to beat and a team that the USA can’t score more than one goal against.
But disappointing, and puzzling, was Arena’s approach to the USA’s Panama problem. In the 2017 Gold Cup opener on Saturday, he started only one forward.
And we got another 1-1 tie.
Dom Dwyer played the lone forward role. After spending most of the game surrounded by Panamanian defenders, he scored a brilliant goal in the 50th minute. One can imagine how much more damage Dwyer could have caused if he had a frontline partner.
Where else did Arena expect the goals to come from with the lineup he started? Besides Dwyer, he didn’t start a goalscorer.
Not one of the midfielders behind Dwyer, although they have their own attributes, is a consistent scorer for club or country.
There are only two other forwards on Arena’s Gold Cup roster, Juan Agudelo and Jordan Morris. That there are only as many forwards on a roster as goalkeepers is in itself, depressing. As for Saturday’s game, Arena waited until the 62nd minute to bring on Agudelo and the 85th to bring on Morris.
It was too late as Panama had equalized in the 60th minute and increased its attacks against a tiring U.S. defense under the hot Nashville sun.
Before Panama’s goal, the USA’s attacks depended much on its outside backs coming forward.
Left back Jorge Villafana set up the two biggest first-half chances for the USA.
In the 26th minute, after an excellent sequence of passes -- Kellyn Acosta to Dwyer to Joe Corona to Alejandro Bedoya to Corona to Dax McCarty -- Villafana got ball from McCarty and played a one-two with Corona. Villafana then juked past Michael Murillo in the penalty area and passed to Kelyn Rowe, whose 15-yard shot was saved by keeper Jose Calderon.
In the 33rd minute, Acosta intercepted a ball in the U.S. half and hit it to Villafana. He exchanged passes with Rowe at the halfway line, had a one-two with Dwyer, and after Villafana beat a defender, he passed it back to Dwyer, whose seven-yard shot Calderon saved.
Dwyer’s goal came on a play that started with right back Graham Zusi’s cross that ended up being settled on the other wing by defender Edgar Barcenas. Villafana, deep in Panama’s half, forced Barcenas to kick it out of bounds.
After Villafana’s throw-in, Rowe evaded Murillo and Barcenas with some nifty touches before hitting the low pass to Dwyer.
It bodes well that the USA has shown in recent games its ability to attack out of the back, especially when DeAndre Yedlin (not on the Gold Cup roster) is on the other side from Villafana. It’s a positive that the U.S. outside backs are so frequently deep in the opponent’s half.
That should remain a part of the USA’s tactics and we look forward to seeing more of it.
But on Saturday, playing at home against a team that has never qualified for a World Cup, Arena’s tactics looked like those an underdog would take. We expect a bolder, more clever, approach.