On a beautiful Sunday afternoon in Chicago, the U.S. Men’s National Team defeated Panama, 1–0, in the final of the Gold Cup. The lineup was as predicted, with Alejandro Bedoya and Joe Corona flanking Landon Donovan in attacking midfield, Eddie Johnson running up top, and Stuart Holden getting another start alongside Kyle Beckerman. The defense was unchanged from the semifinal.
The game opened with Panama playing very compact and conservative, but the U.S. held the ball confidently, and won it back quickly when without it.
The first real danger came in minute eight when a fortunate deflection from a DaMarcus Beasley clearance gave Panama an opportunity to put the ball in the box. The chance came to nothing, but the U.S. couldn’t successfully clear, and soon gave up a free kick on their left. Panama again served into the box, but it was headed partially clear. Again, the U.S. couldn’t get a hold of the ball, and Panama had a third opportunity to serve into the box, this time putting the ball into the six-yard box before it was cleared for a corner. That corner was cleared, but again only partially, and Panama had a shooting chance, which was put high.
The U.S. had a shooting chance of their own just a moment later when a scramble outside the Panama box gave Holden a chance to swing, but his shot screwed high and wide.
In the 13th, the U.S. finally started to dial in its passing, but Holden put too much on the final ball into the Panama box. In the 17th, a teasing U.S. cross into the Panama box rebounded between two Panama defenders, and nearly fell fro Donovan to pounce on, but he was muscled out of it at the last moment.
The U.S. corner was eventually cleared, and Panama broke upfield, only for a Holden foul to slow it down enough for the U.S. to get back. The ref tried to play advantage, but gave Panama a free kick. Holden, for his part, would go off for treatment on his troublesome right knee, and then get subbed. Mix Diskerud came on in his place. Post-game, the report was just a knee strain for Holden, which hopefully is not serious.
In the 26th, a sweeping U.S. move saw Bedoya put a dangerous ball into the Panama six-yard box, but the chance was cleared. In the 28th, a a long cross-field ball found Alberto Quintero in space. His cross found Gabriel Torres, who took the ball down awkwardly, and stayed down on the ground in a heap, needing treatment. He returned to play, but limping.
In the 33rd, a Panama throw fell inside the U.S. box, was only half-cleared, and Panama had another shooting chance, but took it poorly.
In the 34th, a U.S. drive saw Bedoya take a crack with his left foot, but it deflected over. In the 42nd, A U.S. free kick fell inside the Panama box. Clay Goodson, who’d scored twice in the tournament already, collected it and had a strike with his left foot, but it was blocked and the U.S. couldn’t corral the rebound. In the 43rd, Bedoya did very well to settle a cross-field ball, and had the ball at his feet inside the box. Again, though, his shot was blocked.
In a half with few good chances, the teams went in equal, 0–0, a result Panama was much happier with. The U.S. was clearly the better side, but lacked the swiftness of play and incisiveness that had marked its last several games. Panama, for its part, was much better defensively than Honduras or El Salvador.
The U.S. came out of the locker room with a bigger spring in their step and opened the half with two good chances. For the first, a good ball out wide right resulted in a dangerous cross through the Panama box. For the second, a free kick from the right side found Goodson, who just couldn’t direct on goal. It would signal the beginning of a period of good chances for the U.S.
In the 48th, a hopeful ball out of defense was tracked down by Johnson. After a few taps back and forth, Diskerud put in a very dangerous cross from the left, which was just cleared. In the 52nd, Donovan drove into the Panama box. His cross struck a defender’s hand, but the linesman and referee gave nothing. In the 53rd, Johnson drove strongly into the box, but the Panama defender dove in and made a terrific tackle, taking the ball away. In the 56th, a long ball out of midfield by Beckerman was well taken down by Beasley up the left sideline. He then sent in an excellent cross, which Donovan headed wide when he really should have troubled the keeper. The U.S. was generating chances in a way it had failed to in the first half, but couldn’t find the finishing touch,
In the 67th, after a rash challenge by Quintero on Michael Parkhurst gave the U.S. a free kick, it was Bedoya’s chance to have a near miss. Donovan flighted the free kick into the box, but Bedoya’s glancing header went wide. After the kick, Brek Shea entered the match for Corona, and what an entrance he would make.
A low deflected cross from Bedoya found Donovan inside the Panama box, but he whiffed his strike entirely. Luckily, Shea followed the play and had a tap in. It was the second time in the tournament that Shea had entered a deadlocked game and opened it up.
Shortly after, in the 70th, Shea got on the ball on the left wing and served in an enticing cross for Johnson, who couldn’t meet it, but the U.S. won a corner. The U.S. took it short, with Donovan playing it to Beasley. Beasley lined up the shot, but put it over.
Panama, now down a goal, upped their own tempo, forced to go looking for a score. In the 72nd, Panama won a corner. The ball came in but wasn’t cleared, and U.S. defender after U.S. defender jumped and missed before the ball was finally struck at goal, going well wide.
In the 78th, the U.S. had a chance on a the counter, with Johnson finding Donovan in stride, but Johnson wasn’t awake to the return ball, and the chance fizzled. In the 80th, after Goodson did very well to bottle up Quintero out wide, the U.S. had another good chance on the break, with Johnson connecting with Donovan, who found a streaking Shea on the left. Shea’s touch wasn’t good enough for him to shoot first time, so he looked for Donovan, who found Johnson again, but Panama had gotten back, and their defense was good.
After the U.S. took a free kick short, Donovan and Shea combined to give Shea a crossing opportunity on the left. The ball was good and Johnson had what looked a tap-in at the back post, but he scooped it over the top. U.S. fans couldn’t help but wonder if the miss would come back to haunt them, as Panama went straight up the other end and won a free kick. It was nervous moments as several balls were pumped into the U.S. box, but the series of chances was eventually stopped by Blas Perez’s shove into Beckerman’s back.
In the 86th, Panama won a corner after good work from Quintero. The ball was cleared one, two, three, four times by the U.S. In the 88th, Rimando claimed yet another ball flighted into the U.S. box, and the U.S. did well to hold the ball following his distribution, calmly running the clock down with possession. Omar Gonzalez came on for Bedoya in the 89th to aid in that work.
After winning a throw-in at the end of regular time, Johnson went head-to-head with Leonel Parrish. Players from both sides came to help out, and a fracas was narrowly avoided. Johnson gladly took his yellow card and the wasted time off the clock.
In the 93rd minute, Shea did well to receive a short free kick on the turn, but was then dispossessed. He challenged for the ball as it was cleared by Jairo Jiminez, who took offense at the effort and struck out at the U.S. man, hitting him in the head. Strangely, the ref gave Shea a yellow and Jiminez nothing.
In the end, it mattered little. Shea’s goal would stand and win the Gold Cup for the U.S. for the first time since 2007.
MVP: First praise has to be for Landon Donovan, who won the tournament’s Most Valuable Player award. Such was his performance these past weeks that he would have won it even if the U.S. had lost. While both he and Jürgen Klinsmann will say the right things about how this is just a step on the journey to Donovan’s return to the senior side, surely anything less than an immediate return is out of the question. Donovan makes the U.S. better, full stop.
11 in a row: The U.S. has now won a record 11 matches in a row. Even following the excellent performances during the last round of World Cup Qualifying games, few would have expected the level of dominance by the U.S. in this tournament, or that the quality of the U.S.’s play would be so high. A huge amount of credit must be sent Klinsmann’s way for managing his team as well as he has, and for making all the right moves, every game. The U.S. is on an historic roll, and it’s because of him.
Shea shines: On the whole, Brek Shea has had an up-and-down tournament. But with the U.S. struggling to make good chances against an organized and capable Panama side, his entrance was inevitable. He made the most of it, scoring the game-winner, providing what should have been the assist for the game-killing goal, and generally making havoc for the Panama defense. When he gets out of his head, Shea can be a disruptive player, and that might get him to the World Cup.
Bring on Mexico: Considering how the team has played of late, both the A and B teams, the Hex can’t resume fast enough. With the next game versus Costa Rica on September 6th, the U.S. could clinch its trip to Brazil against Mexico, on September 10th. That game’s at home, in Columbus, and who would bet against the U.S. doing it? Not many.
Panama played quite well. While the U.S. was the better team throughout, it was clear that Panama would not be broken down like every other team the U.S. had faced in the Gold Cup. They were better organized, more disciplined, and committed. That Panama rarely threatened, and couldn’t make the U.S. pay for Johnson’s late miss, is a testament to the quality of the U.S. more than it is an indictment of Panama.
The U.S. should be very proud. Not only have they won their first tournament since 2007, the team has more viable players for its World Cup squad than at any time in the last several years, and the overall quality of that squad is looking higher than possibly ever before.
In short, U.S. fans have nothing to complain about, for maybe the first time ever. Holden’s injury is troubling, and one hopes he will recover swiftly and get back to playing regularly at club level. When he’s playing well, he contributes a great deal. Other than that, there’s nothing to do but smile.