This article first appeared on SoccReligious.
Another Clint Dempsey back-post goal gave the U.S. a hard-fought 1-0 win over Panama.
Bob Bradley once again omitted U.S. all-time leading goalscorer Landon Donovan in favor of the young–but in-form–Alejandro Bedoya, who filled Donovan’s shoes on the right side. The side remained unchanged from the eleven that featured most of the first half vs. Jamaica—Juan Agudelo replaced the injured Jozy Altidore from the start, rather than minutes in.
Meanwhile, Julio Dely Valdes selected Alberto Quintero to replace the suspended Blas Perez, opting for a 4-4-1-1 of sorts, moving Nelson Barahona just off Luis Tejada and Quintero into Barahona’s usual wide right role.
While the tactics from the first game changed, the strategies did not. Panama once again put all 10 outfield players behind the ball, patiently waiting for a U.S. mistake to pounce on. Dely’s decision to match the U.S. shape once again any numerical or spatial advantage either team might have hoped to enjoy, something Panama hoped to accomplish in the first half.
It was a good tactical move for Panama. They were able to absorb the newly-patient U.S. attack and funnel it to the sidelines, where Eric Lichaj and Steve Cherundolo were particularly active.
However, this worked into Panama’s hands, as Felipe Baloy dominated the center of the defense. The Panamanians won 61 percent of the duels, many of them thanks to Baloy.
Juan Agudelo once again put in a hard night’s work and was unlucky not to score on a diving header, but for the most part Baloy used his combination of brute strength and deceptive speed to keep the U.S. attack at bay.
Inorganic Movement Plagues U.S.
One criticism against the U.S from the first matchup was their stagnant attack. In that game, t.e offensive build up consisted of side to side passes in the back four followed by long, hopeless diagonals from Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley. The forwards, in particular, were very stagnant in their movement.
The U.S tried to change that this go around, particularly with Dempsey and Kljestan interchanging from left to center. However, it was an inorganic adjustment, usually outside the flow of the game and just “because.”
That example sort of sums up the entire first half for the Americans. They tried some new things, but were simply incapable of picking apart the Panamanian core. Kljestan, in particular, was poor—his touch was very bad and he quickly lost confidence, resorting to negative passes.
Panama’s offense offered little for the first third of the game, with Jones and Bradley asphyxiating Barahona in the hole. However, they began waking up nearer to half. Alberto Quintero on the wing offered their best threat, as his and Lichaj’s battle was the one to watch in the first half. Still, Clarence Goodson, assigned with the task of marking Luis Tejada, was superb, as was his partner Bocanegra.
Meanwhile, Alejandro Bedoya had the best offensive half for the U.S., as he was the spark on several of the Americans' best moves.
Two key locker room changes impacted the second half.
The first was the increased offensive-mindedness of the Panamanians. What looked like a 4-4-1-1 in the first half became a true 4-2-3-1, as the wingers and fullbacks pushed up. As Jones and Bradley got more stretched to each sideline to cover the fullbacks, it opened space for Barahona, a, who tidied up his sloppy play from the first half to the second.
As a result, Panama began seeing more of the ball. The final possession stats were 55-45 in favor of the U.S., but it wouldn’t surprise me if Los Canaleros had more of the ball in the second 45. The Panamanians also had more shots (10 to nine) and shots on target (three to one). Quintero once again shined and Armando Cooper, too, woke up.
The second, and most noticeable, was the U.S. swapping Donovan for Kjlestan. The U.S. slotted Donovan into a central role at first, but he, Dempsey, and Bedoya were more fluid than the original attacking midfield triumvirate.
Still, without a true No. 10 to create in space, the U.S. offense struggled. The pattern of attack became predictable and boring: side to side, down a channel, swung in cross. Michael Bradley still lacks the killer through ball, and as good as he’s been in the Gold Cup, his passing was too negative against Panama to offer any offensive hope.
Adu: The Game Changer
|As the only natural No. 10, Adu provided the close control and creative distribution the U.S. 4-2-3-1 had been lacking.|
But just as it looked as if Panama were having the better go of it, Bob Bradley put on Freddy Adu.
Of the 23 players brought into the U.S camp for the Gold Cup, only Adu is a true creative attacking midfielder. Donovan started the second half in the hole, but he doesn't really show to the ball in tight spaces. He likes to drift and get into wide open areas where he has a numerical advantage. Dempsey also worked there a bit, but he is ineffective there, too, because it takes him out of goalscoring positions.
Adu came on and was able to find space between Gabriel Gomez and Amilcar Henriquez. By drawing them in, he opened up the wide areas for Donovan and Bedoya. Of course, his early ball to Donovan, who then brilliantly assisted to Dempsey, was something that only a truly gifted footballer could provide.
But let’s not crown Adu yet (again). Bob Bradley spoke afterward about his increased maturity, and while Adu certainly shined in his appearance, he still has to show he can provide that sort of spark consistently. He also had his usual untimely giveaways in the center of the pitch and was fortunate the U.S. defense was on its game.
If the U.S. are going to continue to rely on 4-2-3-1, Adu is the only true hole player that can draw defenders and keep the ball in crowds. His addition to the game was the difference. When the tactical battle was drawn, the personnel battle came to the forefront, and the quality of Adu, Donovan and Dempsey prevailed.