By FRANCO PANIZO
HOUSTON, Texas – In the end, the U.S. men's national team got the last laugh against Panama.
The United States got vengeance for its group stage loss to Panama, defeating Los Canaleros, 1-0, in the first match of a semifinal doubleheader at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday night. Clint Dempsey scored the winner in a match that saw the U.S. team reach its fourth consecutive Gold Cup final.
"A really good team effort. A hard game for sure," said head coach Bob Bradley. "In all ways, I thought the mentality of the group (was) looking for ways to win. In the first half, I thought in stretches we had pretty good rhythm with the ball. … Defensively, they're solid and I felt we put a very good play together to score a great goal."
The Americans scored through a 77th-minute goal from Clint Dempsey after substitutes Freddy Adu and Landon Donovan combined to breakdown a tough Panama defense. Adu layed off a through ball to Donovan on the right flank before Donovan hit a low cross to Dempsey, who finished from close range with ease.
"We got out of our end well. The key passes I think between Michael (Bradley), Alejando (Bedoya), Freddy, all did a good job to get out of pressure," said Donovan, who started his second consecutive match on the bench despite being healthy. "I made a run forward, I wasn't sure that Freddy saw me but he played a great ball.
"My first thought was to hit it first time to Clint. I saw the defender back off so I wanted to be aggressive. I ran at him, Clint and I made eye contact and I knew if it was going to get there I had to hit it hard. I hit it hard and Clint made a great play to get his foot on it."
The Americans, who were without injured Jozy Altidore, deployed the same 4-2-3-1 formation it used against Jamaica. As a result, the U.S. team dominated most of the possession from the opening whistle, but had trouble creating clear looks on goal.
The U.S. team came closest to going ahead in a rather uneventful first half in the 25th minute, but Juan Agudelo's headed effort off a Steve Cherundolo cross hit the near post.
"It was kind of like the same tactics," said Eric Lichaj. "(Bob Bradley) showed us some video on Panama, what each player is like, their tendencies. We knew what we were doing on the get go."
With Felipe Baloy and the rest Panamanian back line defending aggressively and compactly, Bob Bradley inserted Donovan at halftime for Sacha Kljestan. Donovan was quiet during the opening minutes of his cameo, as Panama began to control the better and create opportunities.
In the 61st minute, Panama had a near chance as a cross from Nelson Barahona almost found a streaking Alberto Quintero but Quintero couldn't reach the ball.
The Panamanians came closer nine minutes later when Armando Cooper hit a shot that Tim Howard got a fingertip on to force a corner.
"The second half got harder," said Bob Bradley. "Panama did a good job of keeping things very tight. Now you have to look for different ways to win the game."
To do that, Bradley turned to one of the guys who had yet to play in this tournament. Bradley replaced Agudelo with Adu in the 66th minute, and Adu made an impact almost immediately. The 22-year-old midfielder threatened defenders with his dribbling moves and sharp passing, and he helped the U.S. team take the lead 11 minutes after entering with a precise through ball that helped set up Dempsey's third goal of the tournament.
"I was just relieved because the way the game was going it seemed like it was going to go on forever, maybe into extra time," said Lichaj of what he felt when he saw Dempsey score. "I was really relieved."
The United States fought off the desperate Panamanians for the final 13 minutes of regulation, earning payback, its third straight shutout victory and a berth in the final of the tournament.
"I think we showed our quality in being able to grind out a result even if it wasn't our best game and we now find ourselves in the final with a chance to win it," said Dempsey.
The Americans will face the winner of Mexico-Honduras in the final on June 25 at the Rose Bowl in Los Angeles, California.
What do you think of the United States' 1-0 victory? Who impressed/disappointed you? Do you see the Americans winning the final with the way they're playing?
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