USA player grades for defeat by Panama

Just three days after boasting one of their best starts to a match in recent memory, the US men’s national team followed up that strong start against Canada last Tuesday with the sort of flat and lackluster start that has become all too familiar.

Facing a dangerous Panama side eager to finally beat the Americans after three straight Gold Cup losses to them, the United States came out with little energy or urgency and watched helplessly as Panama jumped all over the home team at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

When Bob Bradley stayed with the same starting lineup that beat Canada, it was tough to imagine a more different result from a group of players, but there were few players who were able to repeat their opening game results. In fact, most of the US team’s starters saw their form dip considerably.

The central defense tandem of Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson was abused after a steady and promising game against Canada. The central midfield duo of Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones had all sorts of trouble dealing with Panama, looking nothing like the tandem that thoroughly dominated Canada’s midfield and set the tone for a strong start. Then you have forwards Juan Agudelo and Jozy Altidore, who were pushed around and neutralized by a disciplined Panama defense.

Panama deserves some credit for the U.S. team’s struggles. The forward tandem of Blas Perez and Luis Tejada were physical and mobile and kept Goodson and Ream on their heels, and the midfield combo of Armando Cooper and Gabriel Gomez had much more success creating chances and delivering quality passes than Canada had against the USA just four days ago. Then you had centerback Felipe Baloy, who was thoroughly dominant throughout the match, winning everything in the air and neutralizing Altidore and Agudelo.

As impressive as Panama was, it’s tough to understand how the United States came out so flat. Could the Americans really have taken Panama lightly after having had such a hard time knocking off the Canaleros in each of the past three Gold Cups? You couldn’t really consider fatigue an issue, especially not when Panama played a game the same day the United States played its last game.

No, there’s really no excuse. the Americans just didn’t play well and got out-worked, out-hustled and flat-out out-played by an opponent they had never lost to before. Landon Donovan pointed to the fact that CONCACAF is improving. While that may be true, a glance at the rosters, and the clubs Panama’s and the United States’ players play for, make you wonder how a game between the two could ever be close.

Saturday’s game was a game, and a Panama win, because Panama didn’t care about the U.S. team’s impressive history or its players resumes. No, the Central Americans didn’t act like they were just happy to be playing a regional power. They set out to punch the United States in the mouth and see how the CONCACAF bully would respond.

The United States did respond, but not quickly or effectively enough to recover, and now the Americans face a very uncertain Gold Cup future. They face a Guadeloupe team they should beat, but instead of resting players for that match ahead of the quarterfinals, like they could have with a win against Panama, the USA must field a strong team against Guadeloupe to ensure victory. and secure second place in Group C.

Missing out on a chance to rest starters could prove costly in a week, when the United States could wind up playing an in-form Jamaica side, or a solid Honduras side. Let’s not even talk about the worst-case scenarios that arise with anything but a win against Guadeloupe. A loss to Guadeloupe would all but ensure elimination from the Gold Cup, and the likely firing of head coach Bob Bradley. A tie could force the United States to settle for third place in Group C, and a potential quarterfinal match-up against arch-rival Mexico, which is looking like the clear-cut favorite to repeat as Gold Cup champions.

First thing’s first. Bob Bradley must figure out what changes to make to ensure a better start, and a strong full 90 minutes against Guadeloupe. He doesn’t really have the luxury of resting multiple starters who are capable of starting against Guadeloupe. He will have to consider making changes in central defense, forward and even central midfield.

Bradley will need to make the right lineup decisions against Guadeloupe because if he doesn’t, and the United States starts slowly again and fails to win, it could be the last lineup Bradley ever selects as U.S. head coach.

PLAYER GRADES

Tim Howard (5.5) Deserved better after making save before Panama’s first goal, and was steady all night even as his central defense was pushed around.

Carlos Bocanegra (5) Held down his side of the field well, but didn’t offer much getting forward.

Steve Cherundolo (5) Crossing was well below his usual standard for much of the match, though it improved late on. Defended well enough, but wasn’t as sharp as against Canada.

Tim Ream (3) A night to forget for the Red Bulls striker. Pushed around physically and looked a step slow all night.

Clarence Goodson (4.5) Struggled with Panama’s forwards all night, and should have done better on Panama’s first goal. Redeemed himself somewhat by scoring the lone U.S. goal.

Jermaine Jones (4.5) Made some good tackles early on, but struggled with Panama’s movement in midfield. Looked tired in the second half as he began to fade before being replaced.

Michael Bradley (5) Largely ineffective in the first half, Bradley came on strong in the second half, assisting on Goodson’s goal and coming close with a finish of his own.

Landon Donovan (5) Invisible for stretches in the first half, Donovan didn’t look sharp until the second half, when his set piece delivery began improving along with his involvement.

Clint Dempsey (6) Had a dangerous shot saved well and another go just wide, Dempsey showed yet again why he’s considered by some as the best American player right now.

Jozy Altidore (4) It is rare when Altidore faces a defender as strong, or stronger than him, and he faced one Saturday in Felipe Baloy, who took him out of his game. Altidore also shared some of the blame on Panama’s first goal due to a blown defensive responsbility. Altidore improved in the second half and should have had an assist of a great move if not for a stunning miss by Chris Wondolowski.

Juan Agudelo (4) Was active at times, and drew some early free kicks in good positions, but never did get going after that and was largely invisible before being subbed out.

Alejandro Bedoya (6) Was dangerous for most of his time on the field. Put himself in good positions and moved the ball around well. Should see more playing time going forward.

Sacha Kljestan (5.5) Looked good in midfield, providing an attacking spark off the bench.

Chris Wondolowski (3) His point-blank miss won’t soon be forgotten, and you wonder if he’ll see the field again after that miss. In fairness, he did a good job to put himself in good positions, but that miss was tragic.

Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.