By JUSTIN FERGUSON
ATLANTA — After registering only three goals in its three group stage matches, undefeated Panama lit up the Georgia Dome scoreboard in the opening Gold Cup quarterfinal match.
Panama doubled its group stage scoring production on Saturday afternoon in a 6-1 rout over underdog Cuba. Gabriel Torres scored two first-half goals for Panama, and a Cuba red card early in the second half turned what was a close match into a blowout victory.
Although Panama dominated possession from the opening whistle, the Group A winners’ attack could not find the final ball to unlock Cuba’s defense in the early stages.
In the 21st minute, Cuba took advantage of Panama’s missed opportunities by finding the back of the net on its first real attacking opportunity. Jaime Colome’s lofted through ball found a sliding Jose Ciprian inside the box for the stunning opener. It was the second Gold Cup goal for Ciprian, who scored his first against the USMNT in the group stage.
Cuba’s surprise lead would only last for a few minutes. On Panama’s ensuing attack, Cuba’s Renay Malblanche was whistled for a handball in the box. After referee Mark Geiger waved off Cuba’s protests, Gabriel Torres slotted the penalty kick into the corner for the equalizer.
“I think it would have been a different game if that PK doesn’t happen,” Cuba head coach Walter Benitez said after the match. “To score a goal and then have one scored on you, especially on a doubtful play, is very discomforting.”
Torres added his fifth goal of the tournament a few minutes before the halftime whistle. FC Dallas’s Blas Perez nodded a perfect pass right to Torres, and the 24-year-old forward finished with a low, hard volley past Odelin Molina.
After establishing its control after the break, Panama was boosted by a Cuba red card just before the hour mark. Ariel Martinez planted a high boot onto the leg of Perez, and Geiger gave the forward his marching orders.
Ten minutes later, Panama started to pull away thanks to the man advantage. A low cross from the left wing was deflected into the path of Carlos Rodriguez, and the former FC Dallas defender curled it in to double his side’s lead.
The rout was on after Rodriguez’s goal, which was the first Panama goal scored in this tournament by a player other than Torres. After a series of close misses in the opening hour, Perez registered a second-half brace, and substitute Jairo Jimenez joined the scoring party with a goal of his own.
The win books Panama’s second straight trip to the Gold Cup semifinals. The Panamanians will face the winner of Mexico-Trinidad & Tobago, Saturday’s second quarterfinal from Atlanta.