In front of a raucous Seattle crowd on Tuesday night, the U.S. Men’s National Team put together perhaps their most complete performance of the Jurgen Klinsmann era, and soundly defeated Panama 2–0. The victory was marked by eye-catching possession football allied with ruthless finishing, as well as a team-wide defensive effort and discipline that gave Panama little chance to come back. In short, it’s what U.S. fans have been waiting for.
The U.S. now tops the CONCACAF regional qualifying group, with ten points from five games. While there are still five games to go, the U.S. is positioned as well as anyone could have hoped, and as the American Outlaws sang last night, it appears “We are going to Brazil.”
The U.S. squad was updated as expected, given the absentees. Geoff Cameron retained his spot in midfield beside Michael Bradley, and Eddie Johnson came in for Graham Zusi. Otherwise, the starting lineup from the past two games was the same. The field surface, a sod-over-turf kludge, was looking okay, if a little slippery, marred by the occasional divot.
In the early going, the energy was all with the United States. In the 3rd minute, a Brad Evans throw was flicked over to the left side of the Panama box, but Fabian Johnson could only drive his half-volley over the bar.
In the 7th minute, DaMarcus Beasley chased a lost cause as it headed for the end line, just managing to get his hips around a last-ditch cross. Eddie Johnson tried to meet the ball with a volley, but couldn’t connect. The ball fell for Clint Dempsey, but he mishit his shot well over.
On the 10th minute, Beasley put in another dangerous cross, but couldn’t find a U.S. shirt, and the game settled down. Panama adjusted to the early U.S. pressure and started doing what they came to do—deny the U.S. time and space, defend sensibly, and try to counter-attack. The game slowed down considerably, and chances were few.
In the 22nd minute, Michael Bradley nearly opened the scoring after driving into the Panama box, but his shot deflected off Dempsey and away.
Panama was having a little bit of joy down their left, targeting Brad Evans with the speed of Alberto Quintero, but good help defense from Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez held the Panamanian in check. Eddie Johnson got a talking to from Gonzalez, who asked for more defensive work from the winger.
As the half hour mark passed, the U.S. began to reassert itself, having a couple of chances inside the Panamanian box blocked. Then, in the 34th minute, Jozy Altidore did well to receive the ball with a man on his back, then turned through two defenders and got into the box. As he shaped to shoot, he appeared to be taken down, but the ref waved away his appeals. Replays showed it should have been a U.S. penalty.
It wouldn’t be long for Altidore to get his revenge, however, as in the 36th, a surging Bradley run from midfield carried the ball fifty yards. Thirty yards from goal, he fed the ball wide left to Fabian Johnson, whose first-time cross to the back post left Altidore with an easy shot and his third goal in as many games. A clever near-post run from Dempsey opened up the space, and Altidore’s finish was neat. It was a pretty goal from start to finish.
On 41 minutes, a cross from Beasley was cleared out centrally to Bradley, but his long-range shot was just over, possibly deflected.
The U.S. closed the half with good pressure on Panama, though with no more clear-cut chances. Panama scored in stoppage time, but the back line had held a good line, and the goal was called back for offsides.
With thoughts of Jamaica in everyone’s mind, it was clear the U.S. needed a second goal. They were deservedly in front, but a single mistake would ruin the party.
The half opened quietly, with neither team creating much. But then, in minute 53, Geoff Cameron pinged a ball from almost the exact center of the field over the Panama defense to Eddie Johnson pinching in from the right. Johnson took a touch, and finished easily past the keeper with his left foot. Johnson’s run was intelligent, taking advantage of poor Panamanian defensive positioning, and the second goal the U.S. had been looking for had come early.
In the 56th, Altidore picked up a yellow card for a silly foul in Panama’s half. Luckily, he was one fo the few U.S. players not in jeopardy of missing the next game. The foul was unnecessary, and the only mistake Altidore made all night.
In the 60th, a cross from the Panama left was awkward for Howard, who could only get a weak hand to it. The ball was cleared, but found its way to the Panama right, where another dangerous cross came in and was headed just over. A warning, perhaps, not to get complacent? With the U.S. comfortable, Panama’s pressure was growing. With a second Panamanian forward subbed onto the field, the U.S. defense was having questions asked of it.
Panama was having more possession, as the U.S. was willing to concede the ball to them and look for counter-attack opportunities. In the 66th, a Panama turnover lead to just such a break, led by Dempsey and Altidore. Altidore eventually let rip with a shot from distance that was parried by the Panamanian keeper. Dempsey was there for the follow up but mishit his attempt. His looping shot nearly went in anyway, bouncing off the crossbar and out.
The Panamanians were looking out of ideas, and in the 69th minute Marcos Sanchez was booked for attempting one of their last-ditch tactics—diving in the U.S. box.
The U.S. was comfortably in control. While Panama had a good amount of the ball, the U.S. defense was hardly tested, as the team stayed compact and confident. Any Panama half-chance was corralled by the defense or pulled back for offsides or fouls by Panamanian attackers (or the occasional dive). Several times, the U.S. strung together sequences of fifteen or twenty passes in the Panama half, one in the 77th minute leading to a shot from Dempsey, which he put wide.
In the 80th minute, Beasley, again excellent at left back, found himself on the end of one of those passing moves, fed by a pass from Altidore into the Panamanian box. His shot caromed off the post and out, nearly adding to the U.S. tally. Altidore almost added one himself in the 81st, but was dispossessed just as he entered the Panama box.
By the end of the game, the most interesting events were substitutions, with Stuart Holden making his first official non-friendly national team game appearance in two years.
Howard, the U.S. goalkeeper, had little to do all night, though he was called into action late. In the 92nd, Gonzalez, who’d played very well to that point, finally didn’t hold a line with his defensive teammates, and allowed a Panamanian attacker in behind him for a shot that Howard did well to block. It didn’t hurt the U.S., and on replay looked offside, but Gonzalez’s mental errors are something to be aware of.
In the end, though, the clock ran out on Panama, and the U.S. ran out with an easy 2–nil win.
U.S. looking good: Aside from the first half against Germany, this was the best performance by a U.S. team in the Klinsmann era, and perhaps beyond. From players 1 to 11, everyone was locked in and committed, and they produced the kind of offensive game U.S. fans have been crying out for since Klinsmann arrived, while never forgetting their defensive responsibilities. It was as good as it could have been.
A deep bench: Aside from connecting on the second goal, both Geoff Cameron and Eddie Johnson looked good replacing Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi. They probably did not do enough to displace those players, but having depth like that is never a bad thing. It’s something the U.S. will certainly need in the World Cup.
A clean sheet: Securing the clean sheet was a big deal for this back line. While they’d looked better and better in recent games, actually keeping another team off the scoreboard is important. Gonzalez’s mental lapses continue to be a concern, and Brad Evans’s lack of pace is something other teams might target, but if the back five play as they did last night, the U.S. defense could become a real asset instead of a concern.
A nit to pick: If forced to choose one thing not to like about the U.S. performance, it would be Dempsey’s off night shooting. He had several quality opportunities to score that, on another night, he might have taken. There will be games where Dempsey will need to take them or the U.S. will lose. Last night was not one of those nights.
It’s gratifying to see the U.S. put together 90 minutes like they did last night. It’s what U.S. fans have been hoping for for years, and Jurgen Klinsmann should feel very proud and gratified. However, now that we all know they can play like this, the U.S. will be under pressure to do it consistently. That is, of course, a much better problem to have than not being able to play like that at all.
Luckily, the U.S. gets another chance to show its stuff right away, playing Honduras in Rio Tinto Stadium next Tuesday. If they get another win there, the U.S. truly can start thinking about Brazil.