FOX Soccer Exclusive
Recent meetings make US wary of Panama
For a few teams in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (like the United States and Mexico), the group stage is a formality - a chance to work out kinks and develop some momentum heading into the knockout rounds.
After its opening 2-0 win against Canada, the Americans are right on track for the quarterfinal, and can secure passage with a victory tonight against Panama (live, 7:30 p.m., FOX Soccer Channel), an opponent that could present some problems Canada could not.
For starters, the Canaleros are as familiar with the United States as any other team in CONCACAF when it comes to Gold Cup encounters, having been eliminated by the Americans in each of the past three tournaments.
The Americans have dominated the series, boasting a 6-0-2 all-time record against the Central Americans, but the victories have been as difficult as any recorded by the United States. Penalty kicks were needed to beat Panama in the 2005 Gold Cup Final, and the US has needed second-half goals to beat them in the 2007 and 2009 quarterfinal rounds.
"Physically, they're a talented team," said US head coach Bob Bradley. "They have some good players. We have a lot of respect from them. We've learned from both the 2007 and 2009 games that they're a team you always have to play well against."
Bradley has coached the United States in the past two victories against Panama and knows his team is in for another tough test against an opponent that features largely the same nucleus of players that has given the US trouble in recent Gold Cups.
"Their system is a lot the same, some of the same players," Bradley said. "They're a team that physically gives you challenges. They have some individuals who are athletic, also some guys who on their own can cause trouble, so it's a good team."
Tonight's Panama match will pose a tougher challenge than the Canada match-up for two main reasons. First, Panama is a much more mobile team. They're an attack-minded team that doesn't feature the level of top players Canada did, but they're faster and have a more dangerous attack. Second, the United States will be playing in the heat and humidity of the Florida summer at Raymond James Stadium rather than in the cozy, air-conditioned comfort of Ford Field in Detroit, making the US team's high-pressure approach tougher to pull off.
Make no mistake, the United States remains the heavy favorite in this matc, and boasts advantages all over the field, with forward arguably being the closest area by comparison, but Panama is an experienced group and with the kind of team speed that could cause problems for a US back-line that isn't exactly fleet of foot.
If Panama will be banking on something, it's being able to test the American centerback tandem of Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream. That duo held up relatively well against Canada, but Canada played what was more of a 4-4-1-1. Panama will be featuring two natural forwards, including Blas Perez, who has scored goals in each of the past two meetings against the United States.
If Goodson and Ream play well, Panama will have few other answers, especially considering the edge the Americans have in midfield. The United States will be counting on its midfield to dominate play much as it did against Canada, with Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones being key to containing Panama's playmakers, particularly the tricky Armando Cooper.
The game should be a chance for young striker Juan Agudelo to get going for the United States. Jozy Altidore led the way against Canada, but Agudelo could be the key against a Panama defense that will have trouble dealing with his pace.
Beating Panama won't just help the Americans clinch a place in the quarterfinals and a trip to RFK Stadium on June 19th. It would also give Bob Bradley a chance to rest some starters in Tuesday's Group Stage finale against Guadeloupe at Livestrong Sporting Park in Kansas City.
"It's important to take care of business and use third game and perhaps use different players, but more importantly to take control of the group and finish first."
Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.