No Space? No Problem, as USA Win Gold Cup
After losing consecutive Gold Cups to Mexico, the United States triumphed over Panama to win the trophy for the first time in six years. Having cruised through the tournament, scoring 19 goals in the process, their matchup against the Panamanians would be their toughest, as the stingy defense would be arduous for the Stars and Stripes to overcome.
Chris Wondolowski and Jose Francisco Torres did not get the start. The San Jose Earthquakes striker was pinned to the bench once again, after failing to make the cut for Klinsmann's XI in the semi-final. Torres, who has disappointed many, was trimmed from the lineup in favor of Joe Corona.
Formation-wise, the United States had been playing in a 4-1-3-2 for much of the tournament, but that came undone Sunday. Stuart Holden started alongside Kyle Beckerman. Instead of pressing ahead of his teammate, Holden stayed level with the holder, who fished for the ball between Panama's forward pairing. DaMarcus Beasley and Michael Parkhurst were kept on as full backs, while Eddie Johnson played up top as the lone striker, and Landon Donovan featured in an advanced role.
The back six were rigid, while the front four was set free. Alejandro Bedoya played down the right, while Corona was stuck on the left. Despite being creative wingers, the two spent more time in the middle of the pitch than usual. With more freedom, Donovan was given license to roam. He made appearances on the wings at first. Then, he dropped deeper to get the ball, before looking for room behind Panama's rearguard. It quickly became apparent that this match would be different. Donovan and Johnson would not be able to pair up as a strike force, because there was no space available.
In the game's opening minutes, Johnson attempted to curl off his defender's shoulder in the middle of the pitch, copying a strategy that proved successful in the semifinal. As he made the turn off-the-ball, his mark tracked him with ease. The US attackers were frustrated and they spent the rest of the match looking for pockets.
Johnson made diagonal runs throughout the match. He was spotted in the corner of the pitch doing stepover after stepover to no avail several times, as two and three men battled him. Meanwhile, Donovan was silent. His impact was muted in the first half by some excellent defense from the opposition.
As the attacking Americans searched for space, the defense and holding midfielders were looking to break down a cagey Panama. The USA possessed with an addiction, seeing 74% of the ball in the opening quarter of an hour and 77% by the 33rd minute.
However, most of their possession was by design more than anything else. It was a classic case of keeping the ball, because the opposition cannot hurt you if they do not have it. When Panama did break forward, Alberto Quintero threatened. His pace saw him beat Parkhurst in the opening minutes, but as time passed, the speedster rarely had the ball at his feet.
On one of Quintero's bursts down the left, the Americans retreated hastily to their panic stations. Stuart Holden came back to defend and had the ball touched by him, but as he challenged the attacker, his right knee buckled. He sat on the floor for a few minutes, before being taken out of the match by the USA's trainers. It was heartbreaking for Holden, who has had the past few seasons of his bright career dimmed by injury. The damage could be "very serious," according to Klinsmann.
Mix Diskerud, the attacking midfielder who replaced Holden on 23 minutes, pressed ahead of Beckerman, a plan that worked throughout the group and knockout stages. Diskerud realized that no space was available between Panama's banks of four, thus he quickly retreated to Beckerman's side. He was right to do this, as any space in that region should be left to Donovan.
Former Boston College winger Alejandro Bedoya was the Stars and Stripe's most positive player. He was guilty of taking too many touches on the ball at times, but he did cut in from the right to take a shot or two.
The second half continued the first half's disjointed pattern. This match had no flow to it and though the United States had so much of ball, they failed to do anything of value with it.
After trying to get a goal through their ground game, the US switched strategies and went to the air. Permeating the red shirts with long balls and crosses yielded a few chances for the US. A ball launched down the left found an attacking Beasley, who whipped in a cross that created a chance for the favorites. This got the crowd going and suddenly the Americans became more positive.
Klinsmann's replacements, Andreas Herzog and Martin Vasquez, made a change on 67 minutes that would alter the match. Just 32 seconds after coming onto the pitch, Brek Shea scored to put the USA in front. A cleared cross preceded an early ball in from Bedoya that found Donovan near the goalmouth. The Gold Cup MVP made contact with the ball seeing it trickle toward the net. Shea, who was just behind the ball when Donovan touched it, passed it between the pipes to put the Americans 1-0 up.
The USA's "alternative" game plan came to fruition through this scrappy goal. Crossing has been a motif for this US team all tournament long. Klinsmann's boys launched 123 balls into the box during the competition - a total that dwarfs that of any other team. Panama came in second in this category whipping in 60 less crosses than the US.
With a lead going into the final 20 minutes, the US were, once again, confident in their abilities. Mix Diskerud was energetic in chasing down Panama's midfielders, as he tried to win the ball high up the pitch. Landon Donovan did the same, and despite forays from their opponents, the title was in the bag.
The American coaching staff made an insurance move late, removing Bedoya for Omar Gonzalez, who was called up for the tournament's knockout stages. Settling in as a demolition man, Gonzalez led the trio of center backs in the closing minutes. As he made a few headed clearances, Diskerud and Beckerman used their feet to get the ball out of their own area.
Under adversity, the USA was able to pull off the victory. Winning a classic CONCACAF match like this was exactly what the Americans needed. The performance was especially encouraging, because they found a way to win.
During this Gold Cup, the US were playing their bit of champagne football. The sublime movement of Eddie Johnson against Honduras was a prime example of that, while their slugfest wins over Belize and El Salvador can be chalked up to solid moral victories. American soccer was built on grit, not beautiful passing, and that quality of US soccer was integral in taking back the Gold Cup.