The U.S. men's soccer team is set for a rematch against Panama Wednesday evening at the Gold Cup regional tournament being hosted by the United States. At stake this time is a berth in the semifinals.
Panama stunned the United States, 2-1, in first round group play at the CONCACAF Gold Cup on June 11. It was the first time the U.S. had ever lost to Panama in 10 matches, and it ended a 26-game unbeaten streak for the U.S. men in first round Gold Cup play.
Three days later, after the Americans beat tiny Guadeloupe by only 1-0, and Coach Bob Bradley allowed two of his star players to leave three days of training to attend their sisters' weddings, the team found itself on the receiving end of a lot of criticism.
Much of that subsided after a 2-0 win over Jamaica Sunday in Washington that sent the U.S. into the semifinals, which will be played in Houston.
There the Americans will get a chance for revenge against Panama, which advanced with a penalty kick shootout win over El Salvador.
Despite a rough first round, Bradley believes his team is now on track.
"You know, I say it all the time. You come into these tournaments and you have to grow as you move through it, the combination of the games and the training all become important," said Bradley. "And you can see the team getting sharper. We've had different guys come through so far. Everybody's needed in this kind of tournament."
That was certainly apparent in the 2-0 quarterfinal win against Jamaica when striker Jozy Altidore had to leave the game in the 12th minute with a leg muscle injury, and 19-year-old Juan Agudelo came on to replace him. The Colombian-born Agudelo had a good showing, including an impressive assist on the second U.S. goal that came in the 80th minute by midfielder Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey started and played the entire match in Washington, though he rejoined the team less than 20 hours before kickoff after attending his sister's wedding in Texas.
"You know, I was just glad I was able to get back and I just wasn't going to let that be a factor, let it more motivate me to come out and not be an excuse the fact that I was traveling. And saying that, the real story is the team," said Dempsey. We're getting better every game, and that's what you want in a tournament. You don't want to start off peaking. You want to, you know, build up and I think we're doing that."
The U.S. soccer team has reached four of the past five Gold Cup finals and can make it five of six with a win over Panama. The other semifinal, also Wednesday in Houston, features defending champion Mexico against Honduras. The semifinal winners meet for the title Saturday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California.
This biennial Gold Cup has more than just regional football bragging rights at stake this year. The winner earns a berth in the 2013 FIFA Confederations Cup in Brazil that serves as a tune-up event one year before the next World Cup.