CHRISTOPHER MCCOLLUM - Wednesday, June 12, 2013
With a late start to the game, the U.S. National Team looked to capitalize on Mexico's third straight home tie by taking three points from Panama, leaping into the group lead halfway through qualifying.
Jurgen Klinsmann brought the same lineup to the game that he started in the victories over Germany and Jamaica, with the exception of injured Jermaine Jones and suspended Graham Zusi. Geoff Cameron and Eddie Johnson took the places of the two missing midfielders, and the team flowed well throughout the game.
It was a festive atmosphere for the first qualifying game in Seattle in nearly forty years, and CenturyLink Field was colored in with the red, white, and blue of some 40,000 fans. The U.S. took the game to Panama from the get-go, controlling possession and withstanding the few signs of Panamanian life. Though the game started out fairly even in play, the U.S. midfield quickly got the ball under control, with Cameron performing as an admirable destroyer in place of the injured Jones.
Panama was expected to bunker down to try to hold onto a road point, but they came out surprisingly aggressive and searching up field, though their possession was limited by a superior American midfield. The U.S., led by Jozy Altidore, Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley through the middle of the field, consistently showed themselves to be a threat in the offensive third, and it appeared to pay off in the 22nd minute when a bouncing ball fell to Bradley just inside the box. The AS Roma midfielder lined up a blistering left footed shot, but Dempsey, positioned deeper inside the box, was unable to move completely out of the way of the shot and the ball glanced off of his foot and out of bounds.
As though burned by the bad luck of his positioning, Dempsey's game seemed to immediately step up, as he turned playmaker and began making probing passes through the Panamanian defense, looking to send Altidore, the Johnsons, or even Beasley through. His poise on the ball and the danger of his passes forced the Panama defense to sit deep, wary of balls getting behind them.
Despite the momentum held by the Americans, Panama showed signs of attack at times, prodding up field with counter attacks when they could. Brad Evans was nearly exposed halfway through the half, but his recovery speed and a well timed slide tackle saved the corner from being turned. Evans, recognizing his weakness in the one on one game, began communicating more earnestly with Eddie Johnson to receive defensive support from the right midfielder.
After threatening for most of the first half, Bradley finally unlocked Panama's defense with a confident run through the midfield, holding onto the ball long enough for Fabian Johnson to overlap on the left. Bradley played into Johnson's path, who then played the ball across the box, freezing defenders and goalkeeper alike and finding Altidore alone at he back post. Altidore's goal was his third in the past three games, continuing to show that he is no longer the player that was in a drought going back to 2011 with the National Team.
Into the first minute of injury time for the first half, Luis Tejada had a chance to pull Panama even, but he was half a step offsides as the ball went over the top of the American defense, and his easy goal past Howard was appropriately flagged down. It was a break that was sorely needed from Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler who neglected to pickup Tejada as he was positioned dead center at he top of the box.
Neither team changed their lineup at half time, and the same 22 players stepped back on the field to resume the game.
Cameron resumed his strong play through the game as he continued to lock down Panama's midfield game, and he put his stamp on field with a beautiful long diagonal pass to Eddie Johnson who perfectly timed his run to get behind the defense. Johnson received the ball with one touch at the 18 and easily scored past Jaime Penedo.
As the second half progressed, the chemistry between Altidore and Dempsey continued to be evident as small passing combinations threatened to open up for a third goal.
In the 79th minute, a beautiful cross field ball from Bradley found Fabian Johnson who touched the ball once out of the air to Altidore, who controlled the ball 30 yards from goal. DaMarcus Beasley streaked into the play a moment later, and Altidore played him into the box with a perfect through ball, leaving Beasley one on one with Penedo. Beasley shot with his left foot past Penedo, but his effort went off the post and out of bounds, spoiling an otherwise perfect play.
Bradley and Cameron consistently slowed the game down through the final 10 minutes, bringing an almost conflicted style of play to the U.S. team; while the center midfield sought to control the game, the attacking tandem of Dempsey and Altidore continued to hunt for a third goal, pushing aggressively when they had the opportunity.
In the 87th minute, Brad Davis entered the game for Fabian Johnson, and Joe Corona entered for Eddie Johnson. The Sounders man left to a standing ovation from the hometown crowd. The substitutions were followed four minutes later by Stuart Holden entering the game for Jozy Altidore.
The U.S. spent the final few minutes closing the game down, but in the second minute of stoppage time, Rolando Blackburn almost caught the defense sleeping, sitting behind Gonzalez in his blind spot. The through ball from Tejada seemed to put Blackburn in on Tim Howard, but Howard was alert despite nearly a full game of inactivity, and he leaped off the line to shut down the play. The game was whistled to a close only a minute later, giving the U.S. three points and sending them to the top of the standings in CONCACAF.
With the victory, the Americans handed Panama only their second loss in this qualifying campaign, and held them scoreless for only the fourth time in 15 games. With Honduras beating Jamaica earlier in the evening, Panama dropped to fifth place in the standings, but because of the tie in Mexico City, they sit only two points behind Mexico and the Ticos.
The U.S. next plays Honduras on June 18, at Rio Tinto.