Make no mistake about it. The two best teams in the 2013 Gold Cup are meeting in the final today, the United States and Panama. FIFA rankings, World Cup qualifying results, all of that went out the window two weeks ago when Panama knocked off Mexico to start the group phase of the tournament.
Now, with the Gold Cup title on the line, and a potential berth in the 2017 Confederations Cup, the United States and Panama will meet at Soldier Field in Chicago this afternoon at 4PM on FOX.
Both the USA and Panama brought fairly senior sides to the Gold Cup, while others like Mexico opted for a full lineup of reserve players. Throughout the tournament the differences in the way these two teams have played has clearly been evident. The US hasn’t dropped a point, scored at least three goals in every match but one and has a goal differential of +15. Panama is unbeaten, has twice defeated Mexico 2-1, and only dropped points to Canada after wrapping up Group A in their first two games.
But the USA will be without head coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who was suspended for the final following his dismissal from the technical area in the semi-finals against Honduras. Assistant coaches Martin Vazquez and Andres Hertzog will share the coaching duties.
Regardless of Klinsmann’s absence, I don’t see the US making that many changes to a lineup that has been nothing short of outstanding so far in the tournament. A backline of Michael Parkhurst, Clarence Goodson, Matt Belser and DaMarcus Beasley will guard Nick Rimando’s goal. Kyle Beckerman will likely sit in the holding midfield spot, possibly with Mix Diskerud. Alejandro Bedoya, Jose Torres and Joe Corona will be out wide in some capacity and of course, Landon Donovan and Eddie Johnson up front with Chris Wondolowski likely on the bench.
Everyone is aware of the tournament that Donovan is having, scoring five goals, seven assists and he has returned to the USMNT from his winter sabbatical looking very much like the same player he always is. It’s no surprise that four of the top seven Gold Cup leading scorers are playing today in Chicago. Donovan, Wondolowski (5 goals), Blas Perez (3) and recently signed DP for the Colorado Rapids Gabriel Torres (5) have shouldered the offensive duties in front of defenses that have given up just seven goals between them.
The USA is apt to give up goals following a set piece, and Panama is certainly dangerous in those situations. Captain and defender Ramon Torres headed home the game winner in the second half against Mexico, so it’s not just Perez and Gabriel Torres creating all of the chances. Of the four goals the USA has allowed, two have been off set pieces and another on a penalty kick. The US has only shutout one team (Costa Rica) in the Gold Cup and while the defense has been generally solid, to keep a clean sheet against Panama will mean a mistake free game from Nick Rimando and the US backline. And that still might not be enough.
On offense, when the USA uses lots of short passes and attacks space, they’ve been unstoppable. Just look at Eddie Johnson’s goal vs. Honduras. As the ball is being passed forward, Johnson attacks the space in front of him, drawing a defender. Johnson then dummies the pass, leaving it for Landon Donovan, and Johnson turns and sprints up field, getting the ball from Donovan with only the keeper in front of him. My personal favorite might have been Joe Corona’s against El Salvador in the quarters, as the USA unselfishly passed the ball on the top of the box, Corona creates a little space, and slots home to the post.
Creating that same space against a disciplined Panamanian defense will be harder, but in my opinion this matchup is Panama’s worst nightmare tactically. Panama will likely have to give up space in order to contain the Americans and hold their formation, but if they can force the US into a lot of long shots, that would be to their favor. I expect the US to excel on the counter, when there is already space behind Panama’s defense.
I don’t see Panama sitting back and defending like Costa Rica did in the group stage. Panama has the ability to throw men forward and create scoring opportunities and that will give the US attackers, Eddie Johnson, Donovan, etc., room to operate.
Even if that happens, the US still has to deal with Jaime Penedo, Panama’s keeper who is probably looking at his second Goalkeeper of the Tournament award, his first being in 2005. The shot-stopper was instrumental in the closing minutes against Mexico in the semifinals, as he made several key saves help Panama to its second ever Gold Cup final. The first, back in 2005, a loss to the USA in penalty kicks.
A fast paced, back and forth affair between these two sides would certainly be a fitting end for the two best teams in the 2013 Gold Cup. Certainly both of these teams are deserving of the title, the USA for their overall dominance and Panama, should they win today, for beating the two best teams in the region a total of three times.