Five Points: USMNT steers to firm ground with victory over Panama
CARSON, Calif. --
The impact of a positive result started to manifest from the moment U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley curled his corner kick inside the far post for the opening goal.
Bradley boosted his team considerably by providing it with a firm advantage in the 2-0 victory over Panama on Sunday. The ensuing emotional and physical response led to a second goal through Clint Dempsey 10 minutes later and paved the way for a composed and straightforward march toward a first triumph since September.
“It’s good for us to get back to winning ways,” U.S. forward Clint Dempsey said. “It’s going to give us confidence going forward in 2015.”
This performance represents a step out of the wilderness after a difficult period, though there is plenty of work still ahead to prepare for the CONCACAF Gold Cup later this summer. Five Points examines how the Americans were able to end their drought and wrap up January camp with a positive result.
Michael Bradley takes control in midfield
Most of the good work on this day stemmed from the dominant performance Bradley submitted in the center of the park. He dictated the terms and established the tempo in this affair with his relentless and tidy work in possession.
Bradley relied on his constant movement and the switch to a 4-2-3-1 setup in midfield to control the cadence of the game and make the best use of the space afforded. He dropped deep when necessary. He located the right pockets to collect the ball and move it onwards. He overwhelmed a Panamanian outfit without the discipline or the fitness to close him down regularly.
Those efforts continually brought other players into the game and placed them in positions to benefit from it. The dominance in possession allowed wingers Miguel Ibarra and Gyasi Zardes to push high without fear of repercussions, encouraged Jozy Altidore and Clint Dempsey to make runs behind the line and provided all four defenders with a consistent outlet for building out of the back. And the group, as a whole, reaped considerable dividends from a vintage Bradley performance.
It is perhaps too fine a point to note Bradley’s deeper position on paper here. His influence on the game expanded well beyond his goal or his nominal role deeper in midfield. He saw how the match unfolded and slid into spots where he could reaffirm his complete dominion over the proceedings.
“It’s reading the game,” Bradley said. “It’s understanding what the game is asking, who you’re playing with, who you’re playing against. There’s a lot of different things that go into it.”
Improvement in possession creates space …
The effective work on the ball left Panama to chase futilely in a bid to close down the ball. The constant shifting inevitably led to gaps in midfield and provided the American attackers with a chance to come into the game.
Dempsey benefited considerably from locating those profitable areas. He checked back as part of his duties, contributed in possession and then moved elsewhere in search of another touch. It brought him into the game and then placed him into positions where he could either combine with others or threaten goal more directly.
“For me, I was just trying to move around and get touches on the ball,” Dempsey said. “When I would stay high, I really wasn’t getting the ball. So I was trying to come back, find the ball, and try to get involved in the game. I feel like that’s when I’m able to make an impact, when I do get touches, but, at the same time, I thought the team played well.”
… and then taking advantage of the openings afforded
Some of the work to mine the space lacked the necessary sharpness in the early stages, but the precision picked up in the wake of Bradley’s opener.
Dempsey combined with Zardes to muster the best example of the work on the day. Zardes assessed a situation on the right, claimed possession and then spotted room to roam in the middle. His awareness -- a trait he continues to develop with the Galaxy and display in his first steps with the national team -- created an opportunity for Dempsey to split the Panama center backs and step around Jaime Penedo for the second goal.
“They passed it back to their left back and I saw an opportunity to capitalize, step, take the ball and go on the counter,” Zardes said. “As I went on the counter, I saw Clint make an amazing run. I just fed him the ball because there was so much space. I knew he’d finish that one.”
Commitment and organization lead to defensive improvement
Dempsey’s goal allowed the Americans to focus on their defensive shape in the second half without conceding their quest for a third goal. The return to a back four -- Matt Besler partnered Jermaine Jones, while Brek Shea and DeAndre Yedlin took up the fullback berths -- added more solidity without erasing the usual need for scrambling.
The difference in this game: the collective commitment and willingness to scramble back to close down spaces. Panama squandered a pair of decent opportunities in the first half (Nick Rimando rushed out to block Erick Davis, while Blas Perez sliced wide after an unfortunate slip presented him with a golden chance), but Los Canaleros found themselves crowded out more often than not.
Emergency defending is part and parcel of how the U.S. defends at this stage. They combined their effectiveness in that department with an improved defensive shape to register their first clean sheet since the 1-0 victory over Czech Republic in September.
“We stressed it a lot to not let in any goals,” Rimando said. “That was our main focus in this game. I think you could see a lot of players when plays broke down, their first thought was to put the fire out, get behind the ball and stay a little bit more organized. The guys in front of me did a good job. I don’t think they had a lot of opportunities because of that.”
Strong finish tempers lingering concerns about fitness
The continued industry played a part in the waning stages, too. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann made plenty of substitutions as the match progressed, but the collective levels did not drop as they did in Chile a week ago.
Instead of soaking up pressure, the Americans surged forward in the late stages. It served as a rebuke of the criticism over the past week, a reflection of the state of the game and a sign of the improved fitness of the group at the end of a month-long training camp.
“Obviously, it slowed down in the second half, as you could see, but we were trying to add another, a third goal,” Klinsmann said. “It didn’t come, but the pushing was there. They had the willingness to go to the end with all of their energy and their good positive. They really deserve a compliment for finishing these three and a half, four weeks off and go into the preseason with their club teams.”