United States 1-0 Panama: Donovan and Adu come off the bench to help break the deadlock
Clint Dempsey scored 15 minutes from time to put the US into the Gold Cup final.
Bob Bradley kept faith with the XI that overcame Jamaica – Jozy Altidore went off injured in that game, and his replacement Juan Agudelo started here. This meant that Landon Donovan was again on the bench.
Julio Dely Valdes replaced the suspended Blas Perez with Alberto Quintero, and set his players out in a 4-2-3-1 shape that became 4-4-2 or 4-4-1-1 without the ball.
The US dominated possession but were frustrated by the disciplined, resilient defending from Panama, and took a long time to start creating genuine goalscoring opportunities.
The formations on show were not dissimilar – both sides defended with two banks of four, and the two forwards on either side casually pressured the defence and tried to cut off passes into the midfield. The US had far more of the ball, and therefore Panama had to work hard throughout the first half, although they did a good job of slowing the US’ passing out from the back, making Bradley’s side’s build-up play slow and predictable.
Both sides were more fluid in attack, with the wide players moving forward quickly to link up with the forwards. Clint Dempsey played narrow on the left but couldn’t find space between the lines, whilst Sacha Kljestan was similarly disappointing and was withdrawn at half-time.
On the other side, Panama hit long balls towards their central striker, Luis Tejada, and looked for him to flick the ball into the three other attackers. Their best moves came when they broke from deep, however. Panama put together good, quick combinations at transitions and tried to break with pace – a little like Shakhtar Donetsk, albeit without the obvious technical quality the Ukrainian side possesses. Cooper down the left had good pace, and looked the biggest threat.
As was notable in the win over Jamaica, the US tried to dominate the centre of the pitch. They struggled to create from this zone, however, and credit should go to Panama for keeping it tight between the lines and disrupting balls into the feet of Kljestan. Another important factor was the use of a Panamanian central attacking midfielder, often Nelson Barahona, although he, Cooper and Quintero often switched positions. This meant that Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones had less time on the ball than against Jamaica, and Jones wasn’t able to get forward and become as much of an attacking force as in the quarter-final.
The US dominance of the centre, and the solid, two banks of four (almost Hodgsonesque) shape of Panama without the ball meant that their wide players often became sucked into the centre, and this created space for the two US full-backs, Eric Lichaj and Steve Cherundolo, to motor forward, as the US midfield worked the ball from flank to flank reasonably well.
Lichaj started much higher up the pitch, partly because Dempsey was so keen to come inside, but it was down the opposite flank where they had a lot of joy – Cooper was a good attacking threat but also weak defensively, and both he and Luis Henrique picked up bookings down the left. The best chance of the first half came when Alejandro Bedoya and Cherundolo created a 2 v 1 down the right flank, and the latter crossed for Agudelo to head against the bar.
Bradley turned to his bench at half time, bringing on Donovan for the ineffectual Kljestan, and playing in the same role.
Both sides were better with the ball after the break, moving it quicker and looking more instinctively to the wings for creativity. Panama played some good football and Cooper created a great chance for Quintero with a left-wing cross, but the winger was unable to connect. That was a good example of their football, however – the wingers getting into good positions and combining to create a chance.
Bradley’s second substitution saw a bigger tactical shift – Freddy Adu came on for Agudelo, which meant Dempsey going upfront, Adu playing in the hole, and Donovan moving to the left – still broadly within the framework that started the game. Agudelo’s powerful presence had done little to trouble the Panamanian centre-back partnership though, with captain Felipe Baloy particularly impressive. Dempsey’s link-up play in that position was more suited to good combination play.
It wasn’t necessarily the ‘tactical’ element of the substitutions that created the goal, more the individual contribution of the replacements in a rare situation – a US counter-attack. Panama’s defence was caught upfield from a corner, and the US broke quickly with a wonderful ball from one substitute, Adu, out to the other, Donovan, who crossed for Dempsey to tap in at the far post.
Panama tried to rally late on. Their best hope was the incredible long throw of right-back Adolfo Machado, which had been a threat throughout the game – but having been used to playing on the break, they were a little clueless when the US didn’t leave spaces at the back.
A decent tactical battle despite the lack of interest in in the starting shapes. The game was largely about who could work combinations down the flanks – the nature of the goal was almost out of place, since the US had very few opportunities to break quickly.
The contribution of Adu was important in the goal, as was the good work of Donovan – and, of course, the fact that Dempsey was playing as a centre-forward for the finish. Bradley has selection decisions to make ahead of the final – like in last summer’s World Cup, he seems to be better at making substitutions than he is at picking a starting XI.