Featured, June 2011, USMNT

Gold Cup 2011: Take our Talents to Tampa: Your USA-Panama Preview

Juan Agudelo should have more space and time to operate and influence the game Saturday night at the Pirate Ship.

By Jon Levy

It’s nice to return to the “pages” of TYAC after a morale boosting win, and that’s exactly what the Canada match was. The Yanks weren’t perfect, but they were definitely good. Bobbo’s boys got the result, and the taste of horror show against Spain out of everyone’s mouths. Those two effects were of virtually equal importance. But the schedule of an international tournament is fast and furious, so like US Soccer, we’ll put the Canada match behind us, and focus on the next opponent.

What to watch for from the Panama:

The transition works perfectly for this writer, because the Yanks are leaving Detroit (namesake of my favorite KISS track), and taking on Panama (namesake of my favorite Van Halen song.)Sorry Tampa, maybe you’ll get one on the next Nirvana record. And if you see what I did there– it dovetails nicely with my genuine Tampa distaste, which is admittedly irrational, and which I won’t ever apologize for.

The US and Panama are both one and oh in the tourney, and consequently both sitting on three points and atop Group C. That’s about where the similarities end between the two squads. The Yanks can be described as an organized and responsible bunch, like Canada, albeit with more skill and firepower. Panama cannot be described this way… not at all.

The country that brought us the surgical tactician closer Mo Rivera plays mostly tacticless football.

In trying to make sense of the apparent anarchy that I witnessed in the Panama/Guadeloupe match, I did my research as usual and read all I could about the team and the match. The most telling sentence that best described what I witness came from a great match recap by Greg Lalas.“The opening minutes were congested as both teams worked out their defensive responsibilities.” And that’s just what it looked like, for more than the opening minutes believe it or not. Most national teams will start a match with a shape in mind, sometimes even coupled with a defensive strategy, leaving them to focus in-game on how to unlock the opposing team’s backline. Not Panama, or Guadeloupe for that matter. If I wanted to be really nice to coach Julio Valdés, I’d say his team plays a central American version of Total Football. But I think the pejorative route is closer to the truth; in possession and out, they run around like chickens with their heads cut off.

This strategy is not completely without merit though. This style of play helped La Marea Roja (the Red/Crimson Tide, like Alabama and that awesome Denzel flick) “force” Guadeloupe into the defensive breakdowns that lead to their first two goals. The first came off of a long throw in while they earned the second through a quick breakaway followed by a serene moment of patience. For as little organization as this team has, they’ve got guys who can slot one home, and that’s pretty important in soccer.

As for the Panamanian defense, it should be the exact opposite of what the US faced in Detroit. For every static defender and middy that Canada had responsibly holding his position, Panama, the homeland of the surgical, precise, tactical-oriented greatest closer in the history of baseball, has an anti-technician style, ready to run at the ball and force the play. In terms of making the USMNT better, Bobbo couldn’t hope for anything more. He will, however, have to hope the American ball-handlers can deal with the different approach.

What to watch for from The Yanks?

The team will aim to do the same things they did well against Canada, and that will be a challenge because Panama (while not a better team than Canada) plays such a vastly different game than our neighbors to the north. With the Canadians keeping their positions, the US was allowed to dominate possession, create opportunities both along the wings and in the center of the pitch from time to time (nearer to the top of the box than the center circle), and even pull out a few beautiful one-touch passing sequences that we’re not used to seeing out of the red, white, and blue. This should all be possible against the more active but less responsible Panamanian defense, though the Yanks will have to maintain on-ball composure. If the likes of Michael Bradley and Landon Donovan can stay calm and distribute, the opponent will be “caught out”, something that rarely happened in the Canada match. This should lead to more high-percentage shots and scoring chances than the Yanks enjoyed last match, but only if the distribution is precise. Even semi-flustered passes that go just slightly astray will validate the Panama “strategy” and sabotage the American build up.

Defensively, the American backline should take a page from the Canadians and play conservative, accounting for Cherundolo’s (or even Boca’s) runs forward by staying back on the other side or tethering the holding mid (J.Jones) to the backline. The attacking midfielders and forwards are good enough to pierce the Panamanian defensive effort almost entirely on their own, so why risk bringing a lot of men forward? Especially when an organized and communicative defense will be all the Yanks need to frustrate the side that ran riot over Guadeloupe. Panama certainly has the skill, but they may not have the movement to break the US. The Rory Delap-esque long throw should now be accounted for, with the US treating those situations long-service set piece. I won’t be surprised if the Yanks have a lapse or Panama has a moment of brilliance, but the possession edge along with technically sound defending should limit damage to no more than one goal.

Luis Tejada provides Panama with a bit of offensive class and flexibility.

Panama Player to Watch: Luis Tejada

The forward gave game one of the Gold Cup the Jozy Altidore treatment, notching a goal and an assist. Like Jozy’s efforts, but were a tad impressive, and justly deserved. It was Tejada’s chest that provided the perfect layoff pass from the long throw on the first goal, and it was his patience after the Panama breakaway that sent the second into the back of the net. Tejada is now sitting on 23 goals for country, just for shy of the national team record. The Panama attack is a total team effort, and it’s a bit reminiscent of street ball, but Tejada’s the most likely of any attacker to find a seam in the American defense.

US Player to Watch: Juan Agudelo

Michael Bradley is probably the key to running the American attack in this one, but the 18 year old will likely be the finisher. Juan is coming off two decent, but unspectacular performances, and two performances in which he didn’t notch any goals. That’s not right. Right?

Okay, I know the expectations are already too high for the mercurial striker, but how can you not be excited by all the little things he’s doing right? This is a match where those efforts should come to fruition. And by fruition, I mean goals. Expect to see Juan dancin’. Yeeuh! Aaha,you know what it is! AgudeloAgudeloAgudeloAgudelo…

Prediction: USA 2-1 Panama

The US falls asleep early as they’re wont to do. They concede a goal, only to fight back, score before half, and get the winner late in the match. Typical World Cup qualifying stuff right? I’m hoping for another clean sheet, and a reason to be even more excited about the Tim Ream/Clarence Goodson combo, so I’ll be happy to be proven wrong on this one.

Enjoy the match, and Go USA!

Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at jon.f.levy@gmail.com and you can and should follow him on Twitter, especially next year as West Ham United begins its Championship campaign, at @TYAC_Jon.