Sunday, July 19, 2009

USA Defeat Panama, Advance to Gold Cup Semis

The Americans survived. And in the end that matters above all else. But it was an uneven performance that sent the United States through to the semifinals, 2-1 in extra time.

That's not to say that the result was unjust. The US clearly fielded the better side, outshooting the Panamanians 15 to 5 while creating the superior chances. Kyle Beckerman's goal was cleanly created and beautifully struck, while Blaz Perez's tally at the end of the first half came on a corner scrum after the United States substituted defenders. Brian Ching had goalkeeper Jaime Penedo Cano thoroughly beaten on a first half header, but found the woodwork rather than the net. Stuart Holden likewise had Cano beaten and looked almost certain to score, but his attempt to guide the ball into the far post curled just wide. And though Panama nearly assaulted the referee after the match (more on that in a minute) in protest of the penalty, it was difficult to discern their complaint after Roman Torres' scissor kick to the chest of Kenny Cooper while the ball was at Cooper's feet. Frankly it was the kind of challenge that in recent American history would have seen, say, Michael Bradley sent off without a second thought.

Still, the American play was often unimpressive, particularly in the first half. The defenders in particular seemed to have no interest in playing through the midfield, sending long ball after long ball to Brian Ching warding off two defenders. This line of attack, to the shock of no one, was not particularly effective. Given that Kyle Beckerman has had a very good Gold Cup and has been an effective creator, it was all the more baffling. Disaster then struck at the end of the first half. First Jimmy Conrad bumped heads with a Panamanian defender and had to leave the game with a concussion. Then a dangerous flick header was not cleared by the US defenders, and was easily kicked home from six yards away by Perez.

The goal at the close of the first half seem to wake up the US side, as the United States came out of the locker room with a vengeance. Beckerman's tally came shortly after the half, and it looked certain that the United States would close out the match in the second half. But the second goal never came to pass, and the last ten minutes saw the momentum actually flow both ways. In extra time, the American side firmly reclaimed control and possession, but it was Torres' reckless challenge that eventually provided the opportunity to take the lead. Cooper took the penalty and rattled the inside of the post to provide the winning margin. This is often referred to as a well taken penalty, though I tend to think of it as six inches from missing the target and a total disaster.

Plenty of good and bad for the US after this game. For the second game in a row, with far from their best lineup on the field, the United States showed the character to come from behind. Individually Stuart Holden continues to impress, making good decisions on the ball and putting himself in dangerous positions. He once again cracked a dangerous volley, and it looked to be headed for the back corner before it was deflected from danger. Beckerman also continues to shine in midfield. But Robbie Rogers was individually very disappointing in this game. And it's still painful to watch any United States striker not named Altidore, Ching or Davies. Cooper did earn the penalty (through opposition stupidity) and convert (barely), but otherwise displayed little in the way of on the ball skill or ability to win the ball in the air with purpose.

It's hard not to comment on Panama's class or lack thereof. Clearly Panama intended to play very physical in order to make up for the deficiency in class on the field. The referee, World Cup veteran Benito Archundia, permitted far too much of this nonsense, not calling obvious fouls or meeting obvious cynicism with yellow cards. Worse yet, he awarded a yellow card to Jimmy Conrad during a dead ball exchange when Blas Perez reacted to a minor shove as though he'd been shot. This was par for the course for Perez, a talented player who seems to specialize in diving, arguing with the referee and committing fouls all over the pitch. The circus finally culminated after the final whistle with virtually the entire Panamanian roster attacking the referee and his assistants, including grabbing them and throwing the ball at one of the assistants. Forward Luis Tejada and defender/rugby player Felipe Baloy were each booked during the display, with Baloy getting a red for his second booking. Panama's loss removes them from the competition, and good riddance.

For the US, Honduras is next in the semifinals in Chicago. The depth of the United States will be severely tested. There are no plans at this writing to recall additional players that appeared in the Confederations Cup. And Charlie Davies, Freddy Adu, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Parkhurst and Benny Feilhaber have all been allowed to go back their European clubs. If Jimmy Conrad can't go, he will be replaced on the roster; even if he is replaced, losing Conrad would tax the bank line even further. It's hard to consider the defending champions the Gold Cup favorites with the current roster. Honduras will give the current squad all they can handle, especially now that Davies and Feilhaber are not with the squad. Those two swung the first match against Honduras to the Americans. If the US do get through, they get the winner of the Mexico/Costa Rica match, also on Thursday in Chicago. The Gold Cup semifinals should be very good viewing.

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