U.S. 1, Panama 0: Highlights and Positives (Yes, There Were Positives)

The U.S. got a ninth-minute goal from Kansas City midfielder Graham Zusi, then hung on after a 51st-minute red card to Houston defender Geoff Cameron for a 1-0 win over Panama in an international friendly last night in Panama City.

It was not a match that anyone will point to as an example of the Beautiful Game, and the U.S. looked completely lost during the last 15-20 minutes of the first half, but they responded well after going down to 10 men and can take some encouragement home from Central America.

More on that after the highlights:

The primary benefit of last night’s match was that it gave the U.S. team—as well as the Yank coaching staff—a taste of what World Cup qualifying will be like on the road in CONCACAF.

As Alexi Lalas tweeted soon after Cameron’s debatable red card: “That’s exactly type of red card that we’ll see in qualifying.”

Down to 10 men in an unfamiliar (if not exactly hostile) environment, the U.S. made some adjustments and concentrated on killing the game with extended spells of possession. And they succeeded. They held on, knocked the ball around very well at times, and saw out the 1-0 result.

“The way we executed in the last half-hour, especially technically, was very good,” coach Jurgen Klinsmann said in the postgame press conference. “The red card changes the strategy and prevents us from bringing on another forward and continuing to push forward, but overall, I think the team adapted well.”

Captain Jermaine Jones seconded Klinsmann’s notion: “It’s a young team and I think we can really learn from these types of games. They can learn how to go the right speed, how to slow it down. These are tough games and I think it really helps to get the feel.”

One observer said something to the effect of, “Sure it’s a lesson for CONCACAF qualifying, but how many of the guys in last night’s game will actually take part in CONCACAF qualifying?”

Seems like a fair question, but it’s hollow for at least three reasons:

1. Last night’s game and the one against Venezuela were about deepening the U.S. player pool, and adding depth and competition for places to the side, not about, Who can make the team?

2. That said, several players from last night are likely to be in WCQ, such as Jones, Brek Shea, and Heath Pearce. And several more should be standing by, at the very least, including Michael Parkhurst, Geoff Cameron, Teal Bunbury, Chris Wondolowski, CJ Sapong and Nick Rimando.

3. The experience benefited the coaches, none of whom have taken part in CONCACAF qualifying before, as much as the players.

As for the bubble players mentioned above, let’s start from the back:

• Nick Rimando showed he’s a viable option in a tough spot. If Tim Howard and/or Brad Guzan picked up an injury during qualifying, we’d feel confident that Rimando would step in capably. He had a great first half before giving way to Sean Johnson and his James Earl Jones voice.

• The U.S. centerback situation is far from settled, and the current first-choice guys are all aging. They may be in the mix for early qualifying, but if they’re the starters come Brazil 2014, then the U.S. is in trouble. Ergo, Klinsmann needs to blood guys coming up behind them. Cameron didn’t play as well last night as he did against Venezuela, but he needs to be in the mix. Parkhurst is not physically imposing, but he’s a steady central defender, even if his performance dropped off slightly last night, too.

Pearce could win the perennially problematic left back spot by default.

(Related: Why was Zach Loyd subbed out in the 41st minute? Was he hurt? If it was because he got beat several times (and carded) in the first half, then…ouch. By not waiting four minutes till halftime, Klinsmann sent a message. An embarrassing one.)

• Up top, Wondolowski continues to be snakebit: Panama keeper Luis Mejia denied his header with a spectacular save, the second straight game Wondo’s been robbed of a goal.

Bunbury was mostly useless—a fact that only threw into sharp relief the solid cameo by Sapong. The reigning MLS Rookie of the Year came on for the last 15 minutes and did exactly what was needed: We counted three occasions when he held the ball under heavy pressure, using his skill and athleticism to keep possession for the U.S. in crucial spots. We’d say he earned another look (at least) from Klinsmann, and why not with the first-choice team?

CCL: Pumas UNAM Crushes TFC; Tauro Ties Dallas

Toronto FC have never been to the playoffs in four previous MLS seasons, and they look unlikely to make the postseason this year.

But after overhauling their roster in midseason, and qualifying for the CONCACAF Champions League group stage, the Reds still have plenty to play for in 2011. They could become the first Canadian team ever to reach the quarterfinals of the CCL. To do that, though, they’ll have to come up with some much better performances than the one they produced last night at the Estadio Olímpico Universitario in Mexico City, where the Reds were thumped 4-0 by Pumas UNAM.

The hosts got three goals in the first half from striker Martin Bravo. Highlights below, but TFC fans may want to avert their eyes:

The loss drops Toronto to 1-1-0 and into third place in Group C.

The Reds host Colorado in an MLS match on Saturday, and return to CCL action on Sept 20, when they host Panamanian side Tauro FC, which tied FC Dallas 1-1 last night.

The Hoops scored the fastest goal in CCL history in that game, with midfielder Daniel Cruz finding the net after just 27 seconds, but had a George John strike dubiously called back for offside, and eventually succumbed to some heavy pressure from the visitors, giving up an equalizer just before halftime.

Those highlights below:

Dallas host Thierry Henry and New York on Saturday in MLS play, then welcome Pumas next Wednesday to battle for the CCL Group C lead.

Adu (That’s Right, Adu), Donovan, and Dempsey Link Up to Power U.S. into Gold Cup Final

The U.S. advanced to the final of the 2011 Gold Cup last night, edging Panama 1-0 in a scrappy semifinal in Houston’s Reliant Stadium. The Yanks will take on Mexico—2-0 extra-time winners over Honduras in the other semifinal—in the final in the Rose Bowl on Saturday night (9:00 ET, Fox Soccer Channel).

The big pregame talking point was the benching of the team’s alltime leader in goals and assists, Landon Donovan. The postgame talking points also involved Donovan—who came on after halftime—and amazingly, Freddy Adu, the onetime prodigy who signed a pro contract with D.C. United at the age of 14 and hadn’t played for the Nats since 2009.

Adu entered the game in the 66th minute and 10 minutes later, he sprung Donovan on the right wing with a perfectly lofted (and weighted) pass from the center of the pitch. Donovan then found Clint Dempsey at the far post with a pinpoint diagonal ball for the matchwinner.

Highlights at bottom, but first, a clip of Dempsey channeling how great U.S. fans and players felt to see Adu back contributing to the USMNT after years of wandering in the wilderness of hype and too-much-too-soon.

Deuce videobombed Adu’s postgame interview with Fox Soccer:

The only thing missing was the pie to the face.

Match highlights here:

Apparently, the benching did not hurt LD’s game, and, given his substandard Gold Cup performances so far, may have helped.

And Adu played well overall, beyond his role in the decisive goal. A few minutes after Dempsey’s strike, Adu made a great run away from three defenders on the right flank, beat a fourth with a stepover move, and cut the ball back for Michael Bradley in the box.

Bradley chose to pass instead of shoot (and his pass went awry) but that could have been a second goal for the U.S.

Finally, coach Bob Bradley is headed down the road to vindication—yet again. He’s got his team to the Gold Cup final, where they were expected to be, and he made some gutsy calls along the way: benching Donovan and starting Kljestan and Bedoya versus Jamaica; holding LD out again last night, and rolling the dice on Adu.

Imagine if Adu had underperformed and the U.S. had lost—there would have been a tsunami of backlash, maybe enough to sweep Bradley out of his job.

As it happened, though, Adu did just the opposite, the U.S. won, and Bradley looked like a coach well in tune with his players’ form—and psyches.

Now, if he can get them to beat the in-form Chicharito and Mexico, in what will essentially be an away game at the Rose Bowl, his critics will have to clam up—once again.

Do or Die for U.S.—and coach Bradley—Tonight

If you care to revisit the turning points of the U.S.’s first-ever loss in Gold Cup group play, here are the highlights from Saturday night’s terrible 2-1 defeat to Panama:

The loss has provoked predictable firestorms of criticism for coach Bob Bradley, and this time it’s hard to argue against them. (According to Luke Cyphers at ESPN, former U.S. national teamer Marcelo Balboa said during an MLS broadcast that Bradley should get the sack.)

We’ve defended Bradley in the past, based on his results, which have ranged from respectable to pretty good. But this one, obviously, was downright awful—it was history-making in the wrong way, and easily the worst result of Bradley’s two terms as U.S. coach.

If the U.S. stumbles tonight against Guadeloupe (9:00 ET, Fox Soccer), we say that’s the end of the line for Bradley—and we’d bet U.S. Soccer agrees.

The Yanks entered this tournament looking to win it; failing to advance out of group play would be grounds for the coach’s dismissal. (The U.S. can advance with a tie, or even a loss, but will need to rely on the Panama–Canada result in those scenarios. Guadeloupe played most of both of its first two games down a man, losing 3-2 to Panama and 1-0 to Canada.)

But the Americans have bigger problems than a coach who may have run his course. As a friend of Backpost told us recently, the Yanks “have a solid midfield (with good players and good depth), and a quality keeper. After that they are in big trouble. No real forwards and the back line is alternately old, young and suspect.”

Bullseye. And what’s worse, the two best players in that midfield, Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, will be 32 and 31, respectively, come Brazil 2014. Their replacements have not yet materialized.

Whatever complaints there are against Bradley, that aspect is not his fault; it’s simply a personnel issue. Where are the world-class players? The U.S. has deepened its player pool in recent years, for sure, but it hasn’t produced another Donovan, Claudio Reyna, or Brian McBride.

Those types of players have come “out of nowhere” in the past (Dempsey is an example), so a new core certainly could develop before the World Cup, but right now … the player pool looks stagnant.

And the team at the Gold Cup—even if it beats Guadeloupe as expected tonight—does not look capable of containing the high-flying Mexican side, which has outscored opponents 14–1 in three game so far, and will be waiting in the knockout stage.