Featured, June 2011, USMNT

Gold Cup 2011: US Falls To Panama 2-1, and this was a player’s loss

Bob Bradley put the same 11 out there who handled Canada. At some point- shouldn't you just ask the players to execute?

What follows is the match recap I wrote last night for The Shin Guardian. The only changes are a few links I thought I would add, and one more disclaimer. Below where it reads “This loss isn’t on Bob Bradley”, after a spirited comment discussion at TSG, I’ll amend slightly. Yes, Bob Bradley’s tactics weren’t perfect. But he had a plan (attack Panama’s right flank, (Try) to establish width. His substitutions were (with the possible exception of Goodson off instead of Ream) spot on. And while his pregame speeches might not be “run through a wall worthy”, he seems to be prepared. So I still think it’s a defeat that falls on the feet of players.

As for other perspective:

First, worth a link back to Jon Levy’s preview piece. Correctly identified Luis Tejada as Panama’s game-changer; correctly noted that the US would need Landon Donovan to be better than he’s been since South Africa in a USMNT shirt for the Yanks to excel. I’d say his prediction– 2-1 US– would have been right had LD not played awful and Tejada been kept reasonably in check. Neither happened– and so I doubt Mr. Levy was surprised.

Second, Jeff Carlisle says full credit to Panama, who simply outplayed the United States.

Third, our TSG friends suggest the US was punished for its lack of width, and they’ve got the diagrams to prove it.

Finally, many have criticized Clarence Goodson’s game in central defense, myself included. The NYT’s John Godfrey saw things differently, and won’t blame Goodson for Ream’s poor match.

Onto my review.

Every now again, you get punched in the mouth. Forget the referee. Forget the two missed sitters at the end that would have equalized. Forget all of it. Tonight, the US Men’s National Team was punched in the mouth. Dr. Martin Luther King said you don’t know much about a man until he faces adversity—for Bob Bradley and his twenty-three patriots—this is their “Dr. King” moment. The United States will play Guadeloupe in three days and it will need a win and a Panama loss to Canada to claim victory in its group. Yes, we’re referring to Ii’s Gold Cup group. That’s as big a punch in the mouth as you take in soccer, one would think. Certainly there are a great number of talking points from tonight’s game which in the end can only be characterized as an abject failure—the worst loss of the Bob Bradley era (and it isn’t even close, folks.) To this writer, however, two critical points must be made.

Chris Wondolowski and the American forwards couldn't muster a single offside call. That's one statistic even "I don't believe in stats" folks can't ignore.

First, the United States was called offside zero times on the evening. That’s telling: it speaks to a lack of quality runs, not just by forwards but by old mainstays and reliable figures such as Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey. Zero offside calls. Do the research—you’ll rarely find a side that wins a game against a quality opponent (more on that in a moment) without one offside call. The US lost tonight, and it was not once called offside.

Second, as upsetting as the United States’ performance was tonight, Panama deserves a great deal of credit. In any sport, not just soccer, an upset tends to involve the following formula. First, a favored side enters a game fully expecting to win. Second, the favored side is substantially better, or the disparity is enough to lull the favored side into a false sense of overconfidence. Third, the favored side has to play below the level in which it is capable. Finally, the opponent has to play above the level in which it is capable. All of those things happened tonight at the Pirate Ship in Tampa. The Americans lacked urgency—perhaps sensing they were clearly superior to their opponent, and opening the game with that in mind. The Panamanians came to play—and ahead two goals, they tactically did exactly what they should have done—bunkering back and weathering the storm that was the match’s final thirty minutes. In the end, the recipe for an upset was met, and the result was more than fair. That’s worth reiterating and keeping in mind as you read the remainder of this piece, because as harsh as one could be towards the Americans tonight (who were doubtlessly poor), it is unfair to not credit the victors. With that in mind, it is time to recap with three final thoughts and player ratings.

Disclaimer: If you are a regular Yanks Are Coming reader, the format of the piece won’t shock you. If you are a regular TSG reader (many more of you), it might. Here’s the deal: three thoughts and player ratings is normally how I do things. Tonight/tomorrow morning—I provide the normal TYAC review, plus a Golden Shinguard, in honor of TSG.

Three Final Thoughts

First, this loss is NOT on Bob Bradley. Yes, you can criticize his player selections- but that’s pretty much normal for any skipper, especially when you lose. The two things you can’t question are his tactical decisions and his substitutions. They were fine. And at the end of the day, occasionally you lose, and it isn’t your manager or coach’s fault. Some losses are on players. This was one such loss.

To support this claim, one could easily reference the zero offside calls on the United States. It would be nice to suggest Panama was responsible for that statistic, but as well as Panama played the reality is the United States simply had a high striker tonight who didn’t want to involve himself in the match or make runs, and they paired him with a young support striker who made runs but those runs were late and they were not clever. But you can’t place defeat wholly on the shoulders of lackadaisical forwards. Not when you are thoroughly beaten. The bottom line? Panama were better. And that’s on the players.

How were Panama better, and why is it on players and not the manager, you ask? Thanks for asking. Where to begin… first—center backs Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream read their press, or played like they did. They looked every bit the pair who felt they would have an easy run-out against Panama, and they were exploited. Goodson was nowhere near the confident player he was against Canada: shaky in distribution, caught out of position on the first goal, late to mark on the sequence leading to the second. Ream showed us his youth, but worse, he showed us the player who seemed a bit off form in his final games with the Red Bulls before heading to camp. He was slow to react, late to challenge (although the press contingent felt the penalty was harsh) on the penalty, and bad in the air (a weakness Panama challenged early and often, to their credit). Ream was still effective in link-up play, particularly with MB 90 and Sacha Kljestan in the second half, but he’s a CB, not a DM, and that’s concerning.

Beyond central defender failures, the US were victimized by the second “I’m either tired or not interested” performance from Jermaine Jones. Jones was poor in distribution (supposedly a strength), he was late to track back on the first goal, and mercifully, he was pulled after an hour by Bob Bradley for the far more effective Sacha Kljestan. Sure—you could complain about the starting 11—but that’s hindsight, not fair, and to be honest Jones deserved to start after the Canada match. The jury is out on whether he should start against Guadeloupe, after all, the point of destroyers in the midfield is to disrupt rhythm, and Jones did none of that. For most of the fatal first half, Panamanian mids Gabriel Gomez and Amilcar Henriquez, as well as roaming front man Luis Tejada, were given too much space just past the center stripe and were more or less allowed to spray the ball around at will. Jones’ role is to prevent just that from happening—and it is disheartening that he was unable to do so against an opponent like Panama. In the end, Panama wanted it more, played harder (than nearly all Yanks), and victimized an American backline that at every position is either aging rapidly or too young. The American backline wasn’t up to the challenge; Panama was; and that’s the end of the story.

The USMNT simply can't afford to fall behind even below-average opponents. The margin for error is too small.

Second, once you establish that Panama deserves a great deal of credit, it is critical to understand that this game is the best evidence in the Bradley tenure (Slovenia included) that the American margin for error is razor thin.

As Jeff Carlisle wrote here, the Americans certainly need to start matches better. Falling behind might be the stuff of Hollywood film or ESPN drama—but it is NOT the stuff of winning international tournament soccer. The Yanks have little excuse for falling behind Panama, particularly in a match where they were dominating possession—and they quite simply needed to respect the Panamanian counter more. Again, you could blame Bradley the Senior—but that seems unfair—after all—the players need to respect opponents. Bob can talk until he’s blue in the face, but that’s not enough.

As for margin of error—the cold reality is that the Americans simply can’t count on beating anyone before the match begins, no matter what their fans think. Tonight’s loss was bizarre—but even more so because the Americans seemed so apathetic on the pitch and apathetic in the interview room. Landon Donovan called it a “learning process”—one can only wonder when the “learning” ends for the MLS poster-child. What we do know: the US isn’t quite good enough to come two goals behind to win at anything—but that’s not a personal view and if you’re a betting man, bet US heavy against Guadeloupe. Just can’t see a Bob Bradley led side giving up—if anything redeeming happened tonight—it was that the boys didn’t quit. But “not quitting isn’t enough”. Being committed is better, and striving for personal excellence is the best option.  The reality? Well, the US can’t fall behind 2-0 to anyone but Slovenia. And in this region—they’ll have to act more interested in wearing the USMNT shirt before we decide to move forward. But we’ll see.

Finally, as good (and suddenly passionate?) as Clint Dempsey is—this is still Landon Donovan’s rodeo, and tonight just won’t do.

A pair of press folks said this was the worst game they’ve ever seen Landon Donovan play in a US Shirt. I don’t know if I can go that far, but what I will say is it wasn’t good. Service was poor (even on the goal, he received help from Clint Dempsey), tracking back was a bit lazy (uncharacteristic), and patience was lacking. Why does this matter? Should be pretty simple. Without Landon Donovan—this team (and it’s tournament chances) is very, very ordinary. With an effective LD—well—that’s a different situation, but the bottom line is if the USMNT is serious about reclaiming the trophy from Mexico—they’ll need Landon to be the creator and defense unlocking influence he’s capable of being, or at the very least, they’ll need him to make more effective runs, to remember to keep width, and to provide better service. Not a banner night for LD.

Golden Shin Guard: Hard to decide on a night when the Yanks simply weren’t up to snuff, but if pressed, I’d say MB 90, simply because he was steady in distribution and particularly effective when the US were chasing the game in the second half. Bradley missed a sitter to tie it (like two of his other teammates) late, so it’s tough to say he merits the award, but if we’re in the business of handing out default golden shinguards, Michael is about the best available choice.

It is still Landon's team. And when he plays as poorly as last night, the USMNT is very, very average.


Tim Howard, 6—Couldn’t do anything about either goal and nearly saved penalty. Distribution was sound, and actually made a brilliant prerequisite save minutes before the second goal , which was really a brilliant penalty, not a Howard error.

Carlos Bocanegra, 5—One of those nights where Boca lacked the pace and wherewithal to influence the game like he did “back in the day.” Did well in second half with distribution and maintaining position when Panama decided to counter.

Clarence Goodson, 5—Scored goal- so there’s that, and not much else. Goodson’s passing was poor, his distribution was off, and he was out of position on the opening Panamanian goal. None of those things are positive—and this was a step backwards from the Gold Cup opener.

Tim Ream, 3.5– in a word—Not Good. Silly challenge resulted in penalty, though press contingent wasn’t sure it was the right call, and though passing was fine he was caught out of position on first Panamanian goal and responsible as well for the second.

Steve Cherundolo, 5—Not his best night. Service and final balls were off even though he was the only American providing width. Yes, his range seemed to improve in the fourth half of this tournament—but he was tested on the flank (and beaten) at times and on a night where Landon Donovan is disinterested in providing width—Stevie C must provide more.

MB 90, 6—Another fine night for the American central mid, though I’d like to see him not drop so far back on defense (and no, I don’t think it is on Bradley). He flicked Jones on for his goal, and just missed an equalizer of his own from seven yards. It was a sitter—so yeah—he should be feeling bad.

Landon Donovan, 3—Really? Was he even on the field? We saw him miss late just wide of the post, but other than that- he had very little influence. The US needs more from Donovan if they are going to win this tournament, and he’ll have to be better both on set-piece service and in open play if the Yanks are to win the group with a big victory (and a Panama loss) this week.

Jermaine Jones, 4—Not his best moment. Really felt his passing was off early—and if there were ever a time to question Jermaine Jones—that would be it. Jones can probably at least blame Bradley’s tactics somewhat—but it is hard to suggest that he was told to play that deep. Taking the shirt off when substituted—that was icing on a bad night cake.

Clint Dempsey, 6.5—A fine performance by Duece mostly, but he’ll rue the sitter from 7 yards (unmarked) where the ball was passed to Wondo (who missed from four yards) instead. Dempsey made creative runs and his effort was outstanding, but at the same time—the USMNT was playing Panama and he should play this well.

Jozy Altidore, 3—Not a good night for a guy who seemed like he’d turned the corner last week. Oh well. Perhaps US will win another day…Good ball towards end should have been rewarded with goal- but there weren’t enough good moments. Also lost his marker on opening goal—that’s not okay under Bob Bradley.

Juan Agudelo, 5.5—Pretty good write-up here. Main thing about this guy is (unlike so many US strikers), he seemed interested in making positive or at least interesting runs. Problem was he didn’t get much in the way of distribution from either Donovan or Cherundolo—two key figures in making his diagonal runs productive.

Chris Wondolowski, 4—Didn’t seem ready for ball (Dempsey was unmarked) late in game. That’s not excusable, especially for an MLS player who finds garbage goals effectively. Pace was fine but this is Panama, where he shouldn’t be overwhelmed. As mentioned—missed a sitter to tie—and that’s not acceptable, at any level. Wondo needs to finish—and here he failed.

Sacha Kljestan, 6—Another good performance from the guy everyone loves to scapegoat. Lacked a moment of magic- but didn’t turn the ball over—thought about playing offense, got forward and was good tackling and interacting with MB 90. Think he might be ready to start.

Alejandro Bedoya, 4.5—Bedoya struggled to influence the game after coming on. Initially, felt he earned a penalty on one of his lone nice moments, but on review it was properly ruled “a flop”. The yellow for simulation down 2-0 is a bit harsh, but the card is about all Alejandro has to show for his evening.

Neil W Blackmon is co-founder of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.



Neil W. Blackmon