The U.S. made a winning return to Central America, beating Panama 1-0 on the strength of an early Graham Zusi strike.Panama, which recorded a first-ever win over the United States in the group stages of the 2011 Gold Cup, failed to repeat the trick in a friendly in Panama City on Wednesday.
A close-range Graham Zusi goal in the ninth minute decided the game in the Americans' favor, despite typical CONCACAF refereeing ensuring the U.S. finished with 10 men after Geoff Cameron earned a red card in the 52nd minute.
"I think it was a good team win, a great team win actually," substitute goalkeeper Sean Johnson said. "Going down a man in the second half and the pressure we were withstanding, I think it was incredible that we put together a full 90 and came out with a victory on the day."
With only a 19-man roster, Jurgen Klinsmann kept largely the same starting lineup as the one that beat Venezuela 1-0 in Phoenix, Ariz. three days earlier. There were four changes: Nick Rimando came in at goal, Zach Loyd replaced Heath Pearce at left back, goal-scorer Ricardo Clark started in midfield and Chris Wondolowski made it two up top.
Up against future FC Dallas teammates Carlos Rodriguez and Blas Perez, Loyd wasted little time making his presence known.
The fullback's cross hit both Wondolowski and Teal Bunbury in the box before falling to Zusi at the far post. The Sporting KC midfielder slammed his open shot home to give the U.S. the lead just as the clock passed the eight minute mark.
Six minutes later, Loyd collected the first booking of the match for taking down his man 25 yards from goal.
The game turned slightly sloppy from that point out, with both teams struggling on a mushy pitch. Midway through the half, Panama finally showed enough cohesion to spark a dangerous attack. Luis Renteria broke through the high U.S. backline, with Loyd's positioning at fault, to create a one-on-one chance against Rimando.
The Real Salt Lake goalkeeper dove to his right acrobatically to block the shot and then scrambled to push the trickling danger out of bounds.
Though impressive, Rimando's opposite number, Luis Mejia, went one better shortly after. The goalkeeper made a stunning double save, first parrying Jermaine Jones' pile-driver long-distance blast, and then smothering the near-post header after Wondolowski followed up the rebound.
The game continued to open up, with neither defensive line implementing any coaching instructions regarding shape. Rimando pulled off two more impressive saves, one a reflex kick after Gabriel Gomez skinned Clark in the box to feed Perez.
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Loyd made way for Heath Pearce minutes before halftime despite not being injured. Rimando followed at the break, with Chicago Fire goalkeeper Sean Johnson replacing the limping goalkeeper.
Early in the second stanza, Panama received a boost. Perez raced through the center of the U.S. backline and cut back just ahead of the box. Geoff Cameron clattered into him. Despite the cover of two defenders, the referee ejected Cameron.
"If he had contact him, then it's the right call," Klinsmann said. "If it didn't happen, then it's the wrong call. We'll take it the way it is because we can't change it any way."
Klinsmann looked to take the sting out of the game by sending on a series of fresh defensive players. Jeff Parke, Jeff Larentowicz and Brad Evans all entered the match within a 15 minute spell.
"The way they executed in the last half hour in a technical kind of way was very good," Klinsmann said. "We calmed the game down, we controlled possession mostly."
The best chance Panama mustered was a sharp downward header by Perez that fizzled inches wide of the post. With the time winding down, the striker snatched at another chance in the box with the goal at his mercy.
No equalizer came, and the U.S. ground out a sloppy, disjointed win on the road.
Mike Slane contributed additional reporting from Panama City, Panama.