2013 Gold Cup

Tactical Analysis: How the U.S. Defeated Panama

Sunday marked the first time in the Gold Cup that the U.S. missed its A-listers. Up against a tight Panama defense, the Americans had trouble attacking one particularly dangerous area, says ASN tactician Liviu Bird.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
July 30, 2013
12:45 PM
THE UNITED STATES won the 2013 CONCACAF Gold Cup title against a Panama team that looked and played quite a bit like the one it defeated in World Cup qualifying in June.

Both teams lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, but Panama's forward combination on Sunday, Gabriel Torres and Blas Perez, offered more of a challenge than the pair the U.S. faced last month. All in all, la marea roja failed to generate many clear-cut opportunities, and the same can be said for the Americans.

While the U.S. dominated the June 11 matchup between these teams, it was a much larger challenge on Sunday. This was due in large part to the fact that Panama fielded its first-choice squad while the United States sent out what was essentially a second-string team.

Panama defended as resolutely on Sunday as it did last month in Seattle, but the U.S. failed to attack well for much of the game. The biggest missing piece for the Americans, Michael Bradley, was the reason for their domination in June—and his absence is the main reason why the U.S. struggled on Sunday.

Packing it in

It’s starting to sound like a broken record: the U.S. comes up against an inferior team, that inferior team keeps eight to 11 men behind the ball, and the U.S. needs a late goal to narrowly take all three points.

Well, it wasn’t much different on Sunday.

From the very first minute, Panama kept two solid banks behind the ball and, at times, had every player in its own half. Especially in the first half, the U.S. failed to find much of the ball on top of the Panamanian 18-yard box, in an area coaches call “Zone 14.”

Breaking the field down into 18 zones provides a tactical framework from which to build a team’s choreography. The most dangerous zone for attacking players is Zone 14, which is the space in the middle of the field just outside the penalty area.

This is where most goals originate, and teams that can exploit spaces inside this zone will get multiple chances to score. The U.S. struggled to find clear-cut opportunities on Sunday, in large part due to its inability to get into this zone, particularly in the first half.

The second half opened up a little bit, as Panama tired from chasing the American defenders and holding midfielder Kyle Beckerman as they played the ball from side to side.

In addition, Eddie Johnson and Landon Donovan both played as typical strikers, holding with the defenders, instead of Donovan holding a deeper starting position all game. Wingers Joe Corona and Alejandro Bedoya also stayed high and wide in an attempt to open up space in the middle by stretching the defense.

In the first half, the U.S. completed 300 of 361 attempted passes. Many of them were in the back and in wide areas, and the Americans only attempted 12 passes (nine successful) in Zone 14.

By contrast, they went 17-for-20 in the second half, although many of those passes were sideways. However, the only goal of the game came after Michael Parkhurst won a loose ball in Zone 14 and Bedoya crossed from just off the edge of that area.

Finally, against Panama in June, the U.S. completed 30 of 36 attempts in Zone 14. Bradley went six-for-six; Clint Dempsey completed seven of eight. The U.S. missed that kind of presence sorely on Sunday.

The Right Time for Speed

Before Brek Shea made his entrance and scored in the same minute, Panama again fell into a frequent defensive shell, protecting the middle of the field. The U.S. struggled to get anything going in the attacking third of the field, and the match began to stagnate.

Shea may be a one-dimensional player, and his limitations have been well documented, but bringing him on against Panama was the best substitution for the situation.

Panama organized quickly after losing the ball, and the U.S. lacked some incisiveness and speed in attack. When it won the ball high up the field, the window of opportunity only opened for brief moments, such as in the 61st minute when Beckerman threaded a ball through to Johnson. Johnson had options on the flank and in Zone 14, but he was too slow to recognize them. Instead, the ball ended up swinging back around to DaMarcus Beasley.

As quickly as it opened, the window slammed shut. Beasley could have played square to Beckerman or wide to Corona, but Zone 14 was effectively nullified. Even if Donovan found the ball, he had four defenders within closing distance.

Worth noting: every Panama player behind the ball in this situation is either inside the U.S.’s Zone 14 (Panama’s Zone 5) or right on the border. Shea is the perfect player for this situation, as long as he can either cross the ball or cut inside on the dribble to get behind the defenders. His goal-scoring situation is not a great example of this (in fact, Bedoya's cross would have rolled in if Shea hadn’t made sure of it).

But he did showcase his abilities a couple times, such as on his 70th-minute ball into Johnson. He received the ball wide, beat a defender on the dribble, and got off a good cross.

Biggest Impressions

It’s been a long summer for the U.S. national team. First, the “A” team slogged through a month of friendlies and qualifiers, and now a “B-plus” team has played a full month of the continent’s biggest international play.

When the team reconvenes, in August for a friendly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and then in September and October for four final qualifiers, a couple of the Gold Cup players should find themselves involved.

Donovan is the obvious inclusion, but Corona also showed well. He has been with the first team but hasn’t seen much playing time. In the Gold Cup, he displayed his exquisite first touch and vision from the wing, such as when he pulled down a long diagonal ball in the 52nd minute against Panama.

Beckerman had a good tournament, but the depth at his position works against him. Chris Wondolowski, after exploding against lower-level opposition, disappeared against the better teams.

Shea (again) is too one-dimensional to be a starter, but he could be an option off the bench in case the U.S. comes up against another packed-in defense. Mix Diskerud, meanwhile, has been stunningly average and in no way showed he should be included in a central midfield group headlined by Michael Bradley.

Liviu Bird is ASN's tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and is Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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