DAVID SMITH - Sunday, June 12, 2011
The USA suffered one of the most shocking upsets in the history of the program, giving up two first-half goals en route to a humiliating and deserved Group C loss to Panama in Tampa, Florida.
The loss put an end to what was a previously-undefeated record for the US both in Gold Cup group stage games and in all-time play against Panama. The team had gone 26 straight without a loss in the tournament's opening phase, and undefeated over eight all-time against the Panamanians, however this all came crashing down on Saturday night.
Apparently pleased with the team that had beaten Canada four days before, head coach Bob Bradley put out the exact same starting eleven as in the previous game, however this time the greatest weaknesses of nearly every player shone glaringly through at some point during the proceedings.
Panama immediately showed they would be no pushovers, creating an early moment of danger inside of four minutes after Luis Henriquez sent in a fine cross from the left side towards the edge of the six-yard box. While Luis Tejada had slipped in behind central defender Tim Ream and should have easily smashed in the opening goal, his first touch was poor, and he inadvertently knocked the ball over the line for a goal kick.
In the 18th minute, Jermaine Jones barely clipped the heel of midfielder Armando Cooper as he lined up for a crack at the US goal from approximately 25 yards out, drawing a yellow card and setting up a free kick to Panama.
Nelson Barahona kicked the ensuing set piece into the wall, however Panama maintained possession, with a header by Cooper off of a Gabriel Gomez cross just seconds later deflected initially to safety by Tim Howard's outstretched hand. The keeper, however, failed to get the ball out of danger, as it dropped directly in front of an open net where Tejada rushed in amongst a crowd of defenders to poke it over the line for the shocking 1-0 lead for the Panamanians.
The goal temporarily jolted the US awake, as they spent the next ten-plus minutes applying pressure in Panama's half of the field and were close on a trio of occasions, however ultimately were left with nothing to show for their work.
Any attempts to pull momentum their way were undone in the 35th minute, as Ream battled Blas Perez for the ball on the right side of the penalty with both players headed on a trajectory towards the sideline.
Ream made an off-balance and ill-advised high kick for the ball across the front of Perez, which entirely missed his target, however as he fell to the ground the momentum his trailing leg knocked the Panamanian off balance, giving Mexican referee Marco Rodríguez no choice but to point to the penalty spot.
Gomez stepped up to the spot for his team and powerfully blasted his shot just left of center and well above the reach of the diving Howard, giving his team a shocking two-goal lead.
This seemed to take the wind out of the Americans for the remainder of the opening half, with a long-range blast from Bradley in injury time which flew just over the crossbar their only real promising moment before the break.
Despite what was clearly a dismal first-half showing by nearly every player on the field, the US head coach waited until the hour mark to change things up, pulling out Jones and the largely ineffective Juan Agudelo in favor of Sacha Kljestan and Alejandro Bedoya.
This nearly paid off five minutes later as Bedoya streaked into the Panama penalty area and appeared to be tripped up by keeper Jaime Penedo Cano for an apparent penalty to the US, however Rodríguez saw things differently and awarded Bedoya a yellow card for what he perceived to be a clear dive.
Any sense of injustice in the American camp was rendered inconsequential shortly after, as Landon Donovan lofted in a free kick from the right side close to the corner, which Bradley slightly redirected with his head towards the back post. Defender Clarence Goodson broke free of his marker and lunged in, powerfully heading the ball into goal, cutting the Panamian lead to 2-1, with just over 20 minutes left top lay.
The US dominated play from that moment onwards, and Chris Wondolowski's 78th-minute insertion into the game in favor of Goodson saw the team shift into full-on attack mode hoping to equalize.
The San Jose forward wasted a prime opportunity three minutes after entering the game when he shockingly skied the ball after Altidore had set him up for what should have been an easy four-yard tap-in.
Bradley then was inches away from tying at the end of regulation when a one-two combination between Bedoya and Wondowlowski set the table for the Borussia Mönchengladbach midfielder, which he blasted just wide right of the target.
Donovan had one last chance late in injury time when the ball bounced to him on the left side of goal, however the angle was too acute and he was unable to put it on-frame.
The loss drops the US to second place in Group C, now even on points with Canada but ahead by goal differential.
The team will have just three days to regroup and try to correct the game's avalanche of failings before they face Guadeloupe in Kansas City on Tuesday. A win will guarantee passage to the quarterfinals.