Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By IVES GALARCEP
Given the dominant way the U.S. Men’s National Team has plowed through the competition at this year’s CONCACAF Gold Cup, it would be easy to think the Americans should just steamroll Panama in Sunday’s Final.
That is far from a foregone conclusion. Not with a Panama team playing with confidence after beating Mexico twice, and not with the ‘Canaleros’ boasting the talent and experience to give the Americans their toughest test in quite some time.
When looking closely at Panama, what we see is a team with some similarities to the U.S. A pair of dangerous forwards, an organized defense and a midfield that does well to transition the team from defense to offense.
So where does the edge stand for the Americans? Their midfield is more polished and versatile, and capable of controlling a match in a way Panama cannot. Where the ‘Canaleros’ are constantly looking for the breakout counter, and playing the long ball to their dangerous forwards, the U.S. will consistently look to control play, keep the ball and make Panama chase the game while they look to unlock their tough defense.
Here is a closer look at the Gold Cup Final:
PROJECTED GOLD CUP STARTING LINEUPS
Here is a closer look at the match-ups:
Panama likes to push their fullbacks forward, and both Leonel Parris and Carlos Hernandez are capable players getting upfield. Both Jose Torres and Joe Corona like to pinch in from their wing roles, in part because neither is a natural winger, but against Panama they need to take advantage of the space behind the Panama fullbacks. The more effective they are on the flanks, the more they will force Panama’s fullbacks to stay honest and be careful about how much they attack.
Jurgen Klinsmann will be confident in his centerbacks dealing with Panama’s outstanding forward tandem of Blas Perez and Gabriel Torres, but you can bet both Kyle Beckerman and Stuart Holden will look to close the space in front of the central defense. Both Perez and Torres are mobile and like to float deep into midfield to create space for teammates and work combinations. Besler and Goodson both have to be cautious about not getting sucked upfield too easily.
Holden had freedom to join the attack against Honduras, in part because of a lack of attacking threat from Honduras’ central midfield. Panama’s central midfielders aren’t exactly attacking dynamos either, but what Panama has is far more dangerous forwards who need to have their space limited. Don’t expect Holden as a true second No. 6 alongside Beckerman, but he is very likely to have more defensive responsibilities this time around, particularly with the crafty Perez floating into the middle of the field.
Landon Donovan is key to the U.S. attack, in large part because of his ability to find the weakness in opposing defenses and pull at the threads until they fall apart. Whether it is the more athletically imposing but slower Torres, or the quicker and less experienced Chen, Panama will have a hard time keeping up with Donovan. Especially if Donovan floats underneath Johnson in a 4-2-3-1.
That deployment allows Donovan the freedom to switch sides, combine with either Torres or Corona, while isolating Johnson on one Panamanian centerback, most likely Roman Torres. This is where Panama will miss captain Felipe Baloy. Chen is a promising athletic centerback, but he’s young (just 19) and asking him to deal with Donovan’s movement could be a bit too much to ask.
Defensively, the U.S. will need to contain Perez and Torres, and the doing so starts with neutralizing their fullbacks and pressing their wingers. Panamanian wide midfielders Marcos Sanchez and Alberto Quintero are quick, and capable of flipping sides of the field, but to call either of them a top-class winger would be a stretch. Quintero is the more dangerous of the tandem, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him deployed on the left to try and test the slower Michael Parkhurst. To his credit, Parkhurst has been fairly reliable defensively in the Gold Cup, and another strong showing in the final could really boost his chances of remaining a part of the team’s plans for September’s World Cup qualifiers.
All 22 players will be facing pressure in Sunday’s final, but if there are two who will be under the spotlight and be major keys to their team having success, it is centerbacks Clarence Goodson and Roberto Chen. Goodson has had a strong Gold Cup, but is about to face the best forward tandem he will see in this Gold Cup. Chen is a teenager who could wind up having to chase Donovan all over the field. The player who has the better game between Goodson and Chen could go a long way to determining who wins Sunday’s final.
So what does the U.S. need to do to win? Press Panama’s fullbacks, get Torres and Corona involved in the attack, along with a mobile Donovan. If they do that, and Kyle Beckerman can help the U.S. centerbacks squeeze the space Perez and Torres have to work with.
What does Panama need to do? The Canaleros need to keep Donovan under wraps, their wingers need to be dangerous and effective, their central midfield will need to contribute to the attack and not just serve as a shield for the defense, and Jaime Penedo will need to have a monster game. If they put those things together, and Blas Perez can cause problems for the U.S. in yet another Gold Cup (he has had his share of success against the Americans in year’s past), then Panama can pull off the upset at Soldier Field.
If it sounds like Panama needs a lot to happen in order to win, it’s because this U.S. team is playing extremely well, and even though Jurgen Klinsmann won’t be on the sidelines, the the strong and confident team he has built will still be on the field. Look for the Americans to post the victory, a 3-1 triumph, with Donovan, Holden and Eddie Johnson providing the goals.