Coach Bob Bradley's decision to bring in the two midfielders in the second half paid off as they set up Clint Dempsey's goal to lift the U.S to its fourth straight Gold Cup final.
HOUSTON - United States men’s national team coach Bob Bradley pulled out all the cards on a bizarre night in the Lone Star State.
In the end, he looked like a genius.
After being frustrated by a disciplined Panama squad, Bradley inserted Landon Donovan and Freddy Adu in the second half and watched both players set up a Clint Dempsey goal to lift the U.S. to a 1-0 victory over Panama Wednesday at Reliant Stadium.
"Panama did a good job of keeping things very tight," Bradley said. "Now, you have to look for different ways to win the game."
The Americans, who suffered an embarrassing defeat to Panama in the group stage, advance to the Gold Cup final for the fourth straight time and will play rival Mexico next weekend in Pasadena, Calif.
The U.S. controlled possession early on but its only real scoring opportunity in the first half came at the 25th minute when Steve Cherundolo crossed a nice ball to Juan Agudelo, who headed it off the post. It only had three shots in the first 45 minutes.
That’s when Bradley decided to make changes.
Donovan, who came off the bench for the second straight game, entered after halftime for Sacha Kljestan. Adu, who was once considered U.S. soccer's savior, made his first national team appearance in two years when he entered in the 66th minute for Agudelo.
It only took 10 minutes before both midfielders made a big difference.
Dempsey scored his third goal of the tournament in the 77th minute following some beautiful ball movement. The 22-year-old Adu found a streaking Donovan down the right side of the field and the LA Galaxy star carried the ball into the box before dishing it to a lunging Dempsey at the far post.
"It was a great ball from Freddy to open up a lane and once Landon gets in those positions he always finds a player," Dempsey said. "He was trying to put myself in a position so he could find me and I felt far post was the way to go."
Panama had all its opportunites in the second half but failed to capitalize.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard recorded his third clean sheet in a row after coming up with some clutch saves in the closing minutes. In the 69th minute, Armando Cooper unloaded a rocket from just a few yards away but Howard deflected it over the crossbar.
The last goals Howard allowed were against Panama, which defeated the Stars and Stripes 2-1 in Tampa in their second game of the tournament. The U.S. went on to shut out Guadeloupe and Jamaica before advancing to the semis.
"When you come into these types of tournaments, you grow along the way," Bradley said. "You certainly grow when you lose and look hard at certain things, but I think that's important. The first round is always about advancing and using the different games to figure out where you are."
After enjoying success with the 4-2-3-1 formation against Jamaica, Bradley used pretty much the same lineup against Panama. The only change was made up front, as Agudelo replaced the injured Jozy Altidore as the team’s lone striker.
Altidore suffered a hamstring injury in the quarterfinals and will be out for 4-6 weeks. He was having a solid tournament, recording two goals and one assist in the team’s three group-stage games.
For the second straight game, Bradley opted use Donovan off the bench. The all-time leading U.S. scorer had originally lost his starting position prior to the Jamaica match due to a lack of sleep after attending his sister’s wedding California a day earlier.
"We talked as a team and we felt we had a good game against Jamaica and it made sense to build on that," Bradley said of his decision to bench Donovan. "In that situation, the team felt good about what took place, that this was a good way to do things.
"Landon has had a great attitude about whatever is best for the team. And it's a great thing to know that when you bring him on the field he can make a special play, as he did with the goal."
Panama was without arguably its most dangerous player in Blaz Perez, who along with Luis Tejada caused the American defenders several problems in the previous meeting. Perez was a suspended after picking up a red card against El Salvador.
Alex Labidou contributed reporting to this article.
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