USA search for balance entering final Gold Cup group game v. Panama

KANSAS CITY, Kan. —

Fate always brings the United States and Panama together at these critical times in the CONCACAF Gold Cup. It generally does not go well for Panama. Each of the past five Gold Cups runs ended with a defeat to the Americans. The most recent run in World Cup qualifying — complete with a brutal home loss on two goals in second half stoppage time — somehow fell into that category, too.

Once again, the Americans lay in wait as the potential executioner. Their place atop Group A is secure after two victories in the first two games. The placement of the finale ensures Panama will know exactly what is required of them when they take the field on Monday (live, 9:00p.m. ET, FOX Sports 1, FOX Sports Go).

“It’s a big game for them,” U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley said. “They will know what they need to do based on what happens in the first game. It’s a good team. It’s a team we know well. And we expect them to come out with a lot of emotion and a lot of commitment to doing what they need to do to get themselves into the next round.”

Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez faces several selection questions as he attempts to mastermind an unexpected victory with his weakened squad. Gomez must assess the fitness of central midfield duo Anibal Godoy (knee) and Gabriel Gomez (groin) before choosing his lineup. The veteran Colombian coach is also trying to compensate for the suspended Luis Henriquez and Alfredo Machado. Armando Cooper may feature at right back to help fill one of the vacancies, while Miguel Camargo is on standby if Godoy or Gomez drops out.

There are just as many uncertainties in the American camp, but they stem from a desire to balance the competitive demands of this game with the need to preserve players for the knockout stage.

U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann rotated players through the first two games without sacrificing the desired results. Alejandro Bedoya and Alfredo Morales may see the field for the first time as they attempt to work their way into the tournament, while Graham Zusi might miss out after picking up a knock in the Haiti game and training sparingly on Sunday. There is ample room for alteration here depending on fitness levels and rest considerations, but Klinsmann insists he wants his players to see out the group properly and sustain their perfect record so far in this Gold Cup.

“We want to finish off the group in the right way,” Klinsmann said. “That means three points. We want to also, step-by-step, improve some things that we haven’t done so well in the first two games. From our end, we know Panama is under pressure to get a result, at least a tie and probably, they need a win. Knowing that, it’s going to be another grind, another fight. We are ready for it.”

It showed in the first two games as the Americans maneuvered their way through a pair of victories without reaching their peak for extended periods of time. There is considerable utility in finding a way to produce results at something less than top form, but there is also an expectation within the ranks to improve upon those performances.

In this particular affair, the Americans must open the match with the requisite energy and intent to avoid some of the early missteps of the previous two games. They must also try to find their rhythm in possession more readily — particularly given the warm temperatures expected at Sporting Park — and use it more incisively in order to break down the revamped Panamanian rearguard.

“We can be sharper,” Bradley said. “The way that we handle the game can be better. You also have to give credit at moments to the other teams. They are committed to being organized. They are committed to being hard to play against. They are committed to trying to break things up. In some cases, they do a good job. If that comes together on certain days where we are not quite as sharp as we normally are, then it means it can be a little closer than everybody thinks it should be.”

The magnitude of the victory matters less than its mere existence, though. It is a tenet cherished through the first two matches and underscored ahead of this affair. The guaranteed place atop Group A does not enter the equation. Instead, the focus remains firmly fixed on procuring another victory and sending the Panamanians spiraling out of the Gold Cup yet again.

“It’s a game we’re taking very seriously still because it’s great to have some momentum to take into the knockout round,” Zusi said. “It’s not a game we’re going to take our foot off the pedal by any means.”