The US comes off their thrilling three-point smash-and-grab job in Jamaica and travels cross continent to take on a sneaky CONCACAF foe, Panama, on the to the grass-layered turf of Seattle–the same turf that Friday’s hero “Brad F*cking Evans” calls home. (Game winner video — solid Phil Schoen call.)
After fumbling out of the gate in Honduras in February, the US righted the ship–after this forgotten article spurred controversy–by scaling Costa Rica in the Rockies, drawing in Mexico and then going-Algeria on Jamaica. The States is sitting pretty here with three of its five Hexagonal road games out of the way in qualifying and a manageable four points to show for them.
It’s a quick four-day turnaround and US coach Jurgen Klinsmann will have to contend with losing two of his starting ten outfield rotation, a Panama team that has been the stingiest in the group and this guy in the stands.
Freddy Adu, we get to our customary preview.
As usual, it goes:
About The Opponent: Panama
TSG What Are We Looking For
11 At The Whistle
Tuesday’s match may be as much an offensive yawner as the Panama-Mexico 0-0 draw Friday.
About The Opponent: Panama
Ask Juan Agudelo about Panama…
Very quietly Panama has put together a fairly respectable bid for the third ticket to Brazil by way of a difficult defense to solve. Three home games have seen the Panamanians take five out of a possible nine points, but it’s one peel behind those numbers where the truth lies. (Panama drew 1-1 at Jamaica in their single away game to date.)
Panama played Costa Rica well in February’s WCQ opener where only a moment of brilliance from Bryan Ruiz saved a point for the visitors. They then hammered Honduras 2-0. On Tuesday, La Marea Roja scratched their way to a nil-nil draw against the resurgent El Tri. No small feat considering, Panama looked lethargic in their 2-1 friendly tune-up against Peru. Yes, it was a home game, but it’s also Mexico.
For Panama, it all starts off-the-field with arguably the best coach in the region by this publication’s account, Julio Dely Valdes–a dead look-a-like for MMA man Anderson Silva.
Dely Valdez may have not been as accomplished a player as his US foil Jurgen Klinsmann, but he similarly trapsed around the globe in search of the best club opportunity. The former attacker’s career beginnings led him to the Argentinian and the Uruguayan domestic leagues. As his ability started blossoming, there was a hop over the pond to PSG, Real Ovieda and then Malaga–yes that PSG and that Malaga. For his national team he tallied 22 times in 32 games as a player. Respectable.
It is rather odd than given Dely Valdes travels to more-attacking sides that his Panamanian side has been marked by a desire to instill a disciplined defense in a Central American side. That’s like asking Stoke City to go Tiki-taka with Charlie Adam employed as the Scottish Xavi. (Sorry Barry Bannan, you’re not quite there yet.)
It’s been Dely Valdes ability to enforce a defensive scheme that has led La Marea Roja this far, but also the team’s tendency to lose focus within that scheme for blocks of game time that has led to opponent tallies and some head-banging frustrations.
It was a momentary slip-up against the States of course at the Gold Cup back in 2011 that saw Bob Bradley steward his Yanks through Panama’s straits to the GC final in Pasadena. A famous Freddy Adu pass the loan breach in a game where both sides worked feverishly–and anti-instinctually it appeared at times–to keep shape.
It says a lot–about the coach and the team–that the US respected Panama’s integrity as to play a game of “Who blinks first” rather than “I’ll make you blink” in the elimination match in 2011.
Bradley employed that strategy of course because his team had capitulated in the group stage, losing 2-1 to a Dely Valdes side that overran ran a stretched midfield–Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones played catch-up more than shut-down for the better part of ninety minutes that day.
The second goal in that match, an infamous penalty after the squirrelly–can 6’1” strikers be squirrelly?–Blas Perez duped Tim Ream into a penalty at the edge of the box. One minute before that play was the current apex of Tim Ream’s national team career–somewhere Andrew Jean Baptiste and many others cringe and Perez’s eyes twinkle.
With their standard and deep two banks of four on defense, their double pivot with two wingers squishing in and great interplay between their two forwards, it would be spot-on to consider Panama the Slovenia of CONCACAF. A team that must be respected on the counter and probed at carefully on defense to break down.
On the field, the starting point for Panama is Felipe “Pepe” Baloy.
The Santos Laguna strongman and Panama captain should just be called “Curtains,” because if he has you locked up in a 1-v-1 situation, your attack it over.
Ask Juan Agudelo who was brimming with confidence in that second 2011 Gold Cup elimination game–coming of a solid game against Jamaica–and who Baloy put in his place in the food chain.
Here’s what Agudelo had to say about his Baloy 2011 encounter after his Revs’ game this Saturday: (The “drug” comment made tongue-in-cheek out of respect, not accusation.)
“It wasn’t really fun playing against him. He’s strong. Like…he needs to get tested for some drugs, I don’t know. But, he’s really strong, and he’s fast. I think if you’re quick and you really don’t try to get into a physical battle with him, it’ll work.”
That just about paints it. (Any quick forwards out there for the States? Davies? Gyau? Barrett?).
Baloy enables the Panama defense to be stout in the box on set pieces, but it’s track down speed that is necessary on the frequent counters to Panama’s own counterattack.
Behind Baloy is veteran backstop Jaime Pineda, a solid shot stopper who enables Panama’s counter as well with his scampering-out ability on over-the-top balls. Pineda always seems to play strong against the States. The three men that Baloy marshals are Carlos Rodríguez, Román Torres and Leonel Parris. Torres plays in the Colombia league and is more a chaser than stand-up defender. The vet Parris takes up the right side–he is an unknown to TSG–while former erstwhile FC Dallas defender Carlos Rodriguez is the main stay on the left.
(Panama uses it’s front five to get into the attack. Gomez typically shields but can come forward. Occasionally, Parris will get ahead on the right, but Rodriguez has been apt to stay home, especially against stronger sides. More here….)
Ahead in the midfield in the 4-4-2 set, Panama has their own double pivot/their own Jones-Bradley pairing of Amílcar Henríquez and former Union man Gabriel Gómez. The pairing took up residency there in 2010, so the understanding is solid.
Henriquez plays the higher of the two, typically looking for penetrating balls to Blas Perez*; Gomez is the clean-up man of the center aisle and typically moves right and aft to a pure CDM role when La Marea Roja attack.
Luis Henriquez and Marcos Sánchez are the tucking-in wide midfielders. Sanchez has something to prove here in Seattle as his club team–DC United–recently released him just two weeks ago after a poor opening to his campaign. That’s right, DC United released him. Henriquez has been deputizing at left midfield to give Carlos Rodriguez some cover–he’s a defender by trade.
Up top is now a massive question mark unfortunately for Panama. *Blas Perez will miss Tuesday’s game with gastroenteritis. Massive may even be an understatement. Whereas everything in the back keys off of Baloy, everything in the front was to have keyed of Perez. He’s an outlet when under pressure and can maintain the ball allowing Panama to come up the field.
He’s also runs the right channel exceedingly well and can get you set pieces with crafty, borderline-cheating play and he’s pretty solid on the shot.
More so, his partner Luis Tejada feeds of his movement and the space Perez creates. If Perez gains the channel, Tejada cuts underneath. If Perez makes a far post run, Tejada makes a near post run–precisely the type of interchange and movement that can force a younger centerback pairing to looks to the stands for their mommy. Watch the pair’s movement here in their 2011 Gold Cup group stage match against Guadeloupe, a 3-2 win…. …or don’t watch–with Perez out Dely Valdez has a big decision to make in terms of personnel and sequencing.
There are essentially two main options for the coach and one reach one. The first and most likely option would be the insertion of youngster Rolando Blackburn for Perez. Here’s everything you wanted to
know see on Blackburn in 14 minutes.He’s a well-rounded player with good handles and likely the best option.
The next option is to go 4-5-1 and use Nelson Baronha–more a winger–or Rolando Escobar–a more central player–as an attacker behind Tejada. This seems unlikely since Panama solves their linking by tucking in their midfielders and the US would like be able to control the ball for long stretches and starve a lone forward of Tejada of service, however it would slow the US’s deep distribution. And … it’s the configuration (with Baronha) the Panamanians used last time they went against the States without Perez.
The final option–and least likely–is to go with the closet clone to Perez to mimic his movement. This would be Edwin Aguilar who hasn’t got off the bench this year for La Marea Roja.
For the States, it’s very simple. Don’t get caught on the counter. Communicate and track the forwards movement from the second a turnover happens, specifically the key man Tejada. Play down the left side to avoid 1-vs-1 tangles with Felipe Baloy. Gain the lead.
TSG What Are We Looking For
» I’m Your Huckleberry!
No way to get around it. The sub-ins for this match are critical, most importantly who if Michael Bradley’s new Jermaine Jones.
In Panama’s 2011 Gold Cup group stage win, Dely Valdes four midfielders centrally overran the two US CMs (Bradley and Jones.) It was a Jermaine Jones foul that led to Panama’s first goal in that game after having to play catch-up. It was a Michael Bradley pursuit and failure to close that led to the entry pass to Blas Perez and a Tim Ream foul and the second goal.
There is certainly a chance the US goes 4-3-3 in this match with both Kljestan and Cameron coming in as linkers. (BTW, this would’ve been a perfect game for Kyle Beckerman.)
Regardless of formation the US needs to two things to slow down the Panamainains on their counter–how do they do this with new guys employed.
Pressure the exit pass–this means getting behind the ball in a hurry or either Dempsey or Fabian Johnson forcing balls to the outside (Panama wants their first pass central on the counter, not out side to slow it down.)
Second, awareness and positioning. This is not as easy as it sounds. The US doesn’t want to either drop too deep in central midfield cover or think negatively and not keep the initiative–they are at home. They want to take and make good with the space that Panama provides them. Big decision making here for at minimum for the new likely pairing of Michael Bradley and Geoff Cameron.
» “Horsehoes!” Winning the first and second ball. This is simple stuff.
Those pretty pictures below with all the vertical slants? That’s Panama in possession in two of its last three away qualifiers–at Canada, September 2012 (a loss) and at Jamaica, March 2013 (a draw).
Nearly zero ball possession in dangerous space in Panama’s defensive third. If Panama doesn’t push the counter quickly (inside-outside-inside usually in three steps), it gets the ball out of dangerous spots.
Panama–as many teams who feast on the counter–loves fractured chances and with a US team that has trouble winning the second ball–and an unpredictable surface in Seattle–that part of the States’ game needs to improve. In short, this phase of the game needs to be won.
» Spatial Relations
No Graham Zusi, no space.
Shocking to say and scary in practice. Graham Zusi’s wide play has been instrumental in the US finding some attacking flow in recent. Zusi, of course, sits this one.
With a Panama team that is going to defend deep, the US should have some possession. How they use that possession to manufacture chances is another thing. Compound the Zusi loss with the questions of how loose Jozy Altidore can get on Baloy… oh and that divot-centric turf and this riddle is a tough one for Klinsmann’s staff.
In 2011 group stage, Bob Bradley so respected Baloy that after Altidore ran rampant on Canada he doubled up with a start to put Agudelo on Baloy and moved the in-a-groove Altidore out to the left and left flank.
In the follow-up game, Bradley played cat-and-mouse with Dely Valdes until inserting none-other-than-Freddy-Adu in place of the dominated Agudelo to great some spacing up top.
There are many ways to get width in the attack. Early 4-3-3’s saw Klinsmann look to jam a winger high on the left with an overlapping Cherundolo on the right.
The horrendous Honduras loss saw Klinsmann rely on two fullbacks to get up the pitch.
Tuesday will likely see much more demanded from Fabian Johnson and ironically enough Johnson’s best game at LM game against … Slovenia where he and Tim Chandler and, yes, Edson Buddle combined for some interplay on the left flank. That was two strikers for Klinsmann that day.
The US will likely look to hit at Panama’s right side backline pairing similar to that match with Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley coupling to attack that side. Johnson’s ability to in-cut and to take on players–with Zusi–absent would seem like requirement in Seattle.
» The Elements – A lot to tough out for the players and fans in Seattle
›› The field. One word: BLECH! Grass-on-turf. That’s the definition of “not home field advantage” if your team prefers not to play on it as well.
›› The imbibement. Perhaps it’s changed. But if you’re a US fan–fellow FC Black Sox mates Kart and Biggy take note–choose two small beers over one big one.
›› Given all those elementary issues, it’s not wonder that Zillow says a cool purchase of the stadium stands at a paltry $425,000. Bid 25% over asking; it’s still worth it.
›› More history – The US has played Panama once already in Jurgen Klinsmann’s reign. A 1-0 victory to close January 2012’s Cupcake Camp. Graham Zusi played the hero in that one with an early goal; Geoff Cameron was goat-ish with a red card on …. you guessed it, Blas Perez. For a review of that one, click here.
11 At The Whistle
G: Tim Howard
The skinny: For Tim Howard, set pieces and corners into the box haven’t been as easy as easy as knocking down clay pigeons from the skies over the past 18 months as we noted in this piece. Howard again on Friday got caught indecisive on coming out on the Jamaican goal (yes, it was offsides.) When he does come out, he’s often besieged with a case of the Kuyties. Danger area for the US.
DEF: Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler, DaMarcus Beasley.
The skinny: No need to reinvent wall.
CM: Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley
The skinny: Early in the 2012-2013 Tony Pulis was so in love with Geoff Cameron’s versatility that he used him at RB, LB, CDM & FD (Forward Destroyer).
Now Pulis is gone, there was a pig head in the Stoke lockerroom and Cameron gets to show off his Shane Battierness.
RM, LM: Joe Corona (or Brad Davis or Sacha Kljestan), Fabian Johnson
The skinny: If the plan is to advance on the left through Johnson then Davis staying at home on the right is a possibility. He can’t gain the corner on his right foot though and he hasn’t been a sharp defender with the US; that’s a problem. Sacha Kljestan out wide if merely for the illusion of width.
(Klinsmann loves to throw players into the fire. Without Danny Williams here, Corona is probably the fastest true midfielder. We’ll take a gambit.) Eddie Johnson won’t be called on early here in this role with Herculez Gomez out and defensive cover still needed over Evans.
WtF: Clint Dempsey
The skinny: Again in the withdrawn forward role, or the what-the-f*ck role if you prefer. As in “whatever-the-f-you-need” or “What the f did he just do?”
STR: Jozy Altidore
The skinny: Altidore goes back to the town where Freddy Adu scored his last goal in a US shirt–against Grenada in 2009. [Got nothing here today on Altidore.]
Any chance as well the US goes true 4-4-2 in this one and has the twin towers of Boyd and Altidore above? (It was against the rigid 4-4-2 of Slovenia in 2011 that similar actors (Altidore, Fab Johnson) had two of their best games.) Just tossing that out there. Carry on…