So, this is it. With another dominant display, the U.S. Men’s National team defeated Honduras 3–1 in the semifinals, and now will play Panama for the tournament crown on Sunday (4:00 p.m., FOX, Univision, Fox Soccer 2 Go). Panama just managed to get past Mexico, 2–1, in the other semifinal, and so set up a rematch between the CONCACAF rivals. The U.S. and Panama faced off just over a month ago in the fourth round of World Cup Qualifying matches. That match was notable for the U.S. in that it was the first time in this now ten-game winning streak that the team played well for a full ninety minutes. Jozy Altidore scored, as well as Eddie Johnson, and the U.S. looked comfortably the better team.
Of course, neither team will be lining up with the same group of players on Sunday. Panama, for their part, will see FC Dallas striker Blas Pérez line up for them. He missed the WCQ game with gastroenteritis, but has three goals in the Gold Cup tournament.
For their part, the U.S. has welcomed a certain Landon Donovan back into the fold and, with five goals and seven assists, Donovan has been the break-out star of the tournament—if you can call the U.S. record-holder for international goals and assists a break-out. (He’s at 54 goals and 55 assists, for those keeping score at home).
It promises to be a hotly contested affair between the two best teams in the tournament.
U.S. roster questions
Trying to predict Jürgen Klinsmann’s starting lineups in this tournament is a loser’s game. He made several surprising choices in the semifinal, including giving starts to Alejandro Bedoya and Stuart Holden. Both choices came up roses, however, proving their manager right.
What is clear that Klinsmann is using his lineup very tactically. He’s not simply putting his best 11 on the field—if he even has one—he’s putting out the team with the best chance of success against the opponent of the day. In other words, he’s considering match-ups. While some might see that as reactive and lacking in confidence, the evidence has proven otherwise. Importantly, Klinsmann has never tinkered with the shape or strategy of the team, only its personnel. The U.S. has tried (and largely succeeded) in playing the same way in each game, simply with the puzzle pieces swapped out and moved around to best exploit the strengths of the U.S. players versus the weaknesses of their opponents.
Against Panama, that means we can be sure of just a few things. In the back, Nick Rimando will likely start, with DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Parkhurst as his fullbacks. Matt Besler seems to have nailed down one of the center back spots, but it’s hard to know for sure who will line up beside him. Clay Goodson seems to have earned the manager’s trust again and may retain his spot.
In midfield, Kyle Beckerman will also probably start, with either Holden or Mix Diskerud beside him. Klinsmann surprised many by giving Holden and Diskerud a start together against Costa Rica in the final group game, which ended up being the most closely-contested game of the tournament for the U.S. While Beckerman sometimes slows play down, he is nevertheless an important, if largely unheralded, part of what has made the U.S. successful.
Up front, Donovan and Johnson will probably start (and the probably is just for Johnson—Donovan starts, period), but the other two spots are completely up for grabs. José Torres has been good but not great. Joe Corona was doing very well, if a little bit hot and cold, before getting benched for Bedoya. Chris Wondolowski shares the lead for goals scored in the tournament, but hasn’t managed to score since the second group game, against Cuba. Brek Shea has done both very well and very poorly in his appearances, and seems like an impact sub.
As already mentioned, Blas Pérez has three goals. His teammate Gabriel Torres has five, giving him a share of the tournament lead in goals scored, as well. Torres played against the U.S. back in June, but only as a 78th-minute substitute.
Panama, while not as dominant as the U.S., has emerged as the next-best team in the tournament. After opening group play with what was then a surprising 2–1 win over Mexico, Panama beat Martinique by a score of one to zero. Panama only managed ten shots during the game, with only five on target, and their goal came from the penalty spot. Panama finished group play with 0–0 draw against Canada, having made nine changes to the starting lineup with qualification for the quarters assured before kick-off.
While those numbers don’t paint a hugely encouraging picture, the Panamanian performance in the quarterfinal showed just how potent they were, as Panama destroyed Cuba, 6–1. Pérez and Torres each scored two in that game, though Pérez’s came late, after Cuba had gone down to ten men for a red card offense.
The semifinal looked Panama’s to lose in the early going after they scored the opener in the 13th minute but couldn’t put away a second, and Mexico equalized after 26 minutes. Panama went back in front from a corner kick on the hour mark, and the last 30 minutes were very exciting as both teams had chances, but failed to finish.
In short, Panama is the most dangerous attacking team in the tournament outside of the U.S. and has the best defensive record, having only given up three goals against (the U.S. has given up four). They are somewhat less likely to simply bunker in and try to counter-attack, which is both good and bad from a U.S. perspective. On the one hand, any time you have a team actively trying to come at you, it requires concentration and defensive discipline. The U.S. will need to focus for all 90 minutes if they hope to prevent goals, especially on set pieces, where Panama has the big bodies to hurt the U.S. That said, the U.S. is the best counter-attacking team in the tournament when Donovan is on the field, so they will be happy to soak up a little bit of Panamanian pressure and pounce on the turnovers that inevitably result.
It seems unlikely that Panama is a team the U.S. will be able to simply swat away, as it has nearly every other opponent so far. However, the evidence strongly suggests that the U.S. will score, and likely more than once. The focus, then, must be on preventing Panama’s scoring. If the U.S. plays as it has for the tournament to date, the U.S. will win its 11th straight game, and first tournament since 2007, 2–1.