The USA extracted revenge for a group stage loss to Panama, with some bold Bob Bradley tactical decisions paying off.
For the first time in Gold Cup history, a team won in the knockout rounds against a side which had previously bested it in the group stages. And this shimmering new moment in history was brought to you exclusively by Freddy Adu.
OK, maybe not exclusively by Adu, but he played a small part, which is more than can be said about his role in the group stages. Making his first appearance of the competition, the still-just-22-year-old pinged a skidding ball that cut through the Panama defense to set up the game's only goal.
More on that, and Bob Bradley's bold choices, in these quick-fire tactical thoughts:
1. Holdover U.S. formation less suited to best Panama team
In the quarterfinals, Bob Bradley elected to use (or stumbled into, if your opinion of the man insists) a 4-5-1 with the midfield trio overwhelming Jamaica's two-man pair. Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones enjoyed seemingly infinite time on the ball, often casually turning and passing back and around the Reggae Boyz's collapsed formation, edging Jamaica ever further back towards its own goal.
Bob Bradley continued with the exact same formation in the semifinals, even keeping Landon Donovan (who had flown in from his twin sister's wedding at 7 a.m. game day of the quarterfinal) on the bench, except this time it didn't suit the situation. Panama also lined up in a 4-2-3-1. Whereas Jason Morrison had to push forward from his flat midfield role to try to mark America's deeper midfielders, Panama already had guys in that space. In particular, Nelson Barahona, who proved fairly influential on the ball as well, sat behind the lone striker Luis Tejada (Blas Perez was suspended) and denied easy transitions for the U.S.
Bradley and Jones have their upsides, including stamina, heart, a knack for timing late runs, and good size. Releasing the ball well under pressure is not among either of their strong suits. Jones in particular slammed the ball to the forwardmost American player as soon as he caught a glimpse of Barahona out of the corner of his eye. Those long balls never paid off, which isn't surprising given Juan Agudelo's more technical game.
2. This U.S. lineup lacks any width on the left
The most success the USA enjoyed was down the right flank, with Alejandro Bedoya proving rather definitively that he should have made the tournament roster from the start ahead of Robbie Rogers. From that space, also, right back Steve Cherundolo served a glorious ball into the box which Agudelo headed into the post for the best effort of the first half.
The left side, however, was barren. Both Clint Dempsey and Eric Lichaj prefer to cut in on their stronger right feet rather than push around the outside.
For Dempsey this is no surprise. With Bedoya wide and Sacha Kljestan bogged down in the crowded midfield, the Fulham forward was the main link to Agudelo. The Texas native pushed high and central to sit closer to his strike partner and make sure the youngster didn't get cut off from the rest of his team. Throughout his national team career, Dempsey has seen time in wide roles not because he's a natural provider but because his work rate means it doesn't hamper the team to put him there. As he showed with his excellent run and tap-in in the second half, his main attribute is putting the ball into the back of the net in tough situations.
Lichaj's case is somewhat different. A converted right back, the Aston Villa defender just isn't comfortable enough yet using his left peg. He sent a cross into the box with his left foot near the hour mark and the moment stood out exactly because he hadn't done so all game. Or last game. Instead, whenever he made runs up his flank, Lichaj would cut back into traffic on his right, often losing the ball or slowing down a counter.
All of this meant the Yanks were a tad lopsided and in general too predictable, especially during the first half.
3. Bradley's subs came good
Bob Bradley made a couple big calls in this one. The first was leaving Donovan on the bench (Dempsey's repeated gestures to the LA Galaxy captain after Donovan assisted his goal certainly had a "start this guy right here" air about them). The other big calls were substitutions.
Donovan entered the game at the half. Throughout the World Cup, Bradley proved he can make the necessary changes quickly enough to turn matches around, even if his poor initial choices necessitate them in the first place. This was one of those. Though he took a while to get into the match, Donovan offered a cutting edge Kljestan simply cannot.
Then, an hour into the match, Freddy Adu entered. Yes, that Freddy Adu. You know, the one who dated JoJo. The one who, at 14, was the Savior. The next Pele. The same Freddy Adu who now plays in the Turkish second division.
Earlier in the first half, the CONCACAF feed commentator Phil Schoen suggested that the U.S. desperately needs a quality left-footer and to "send suggestions to bob bradly at ussoccer dot com," joking that naturalization could be sped up any qualified candidates. He was blissfully unaware that Freddy Adu would make a cameo - naturalized, left-footed Freddy Adu.
Turns out, years of wandering Europe in search of a paying gig hasn't quite caused Adu to forget how to use that ole lefty of his. With the game grinding out towards a bore scoreless draw, Adu collected the ball deep in the central midfield spot. He cut a curling ball up towards Donovan, setting his fellow substitute free down the right. Donovan hit the ball sweetly, sending it zipping straight towards the back post, where Dempsey somehow muscled away from his marker to tap it in.
Dempsey kept pointing at Donovan, and Twitter kept gushing bewilderedly at Adu's initial ball. But no one on the bench would have blamed him if Bob Bradley had turned to press officer Michael Kammarman and pointed at his thin-lipped grin and said, "I did that!"
Zac Lee Rigg is an editor of Goal.com. Send him doting poetry or compliment his fluttering eyelashes through email or Twitter.
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