Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal against Panama on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. en route to the U.S. winning 2-0. (Rafael Orellana/Living Out Loud LA)
CARSON, Calif.—Winless since September of last year, the U.S. Men’s National Team returned to Southern California to face Panama in a friendly that could only add pressure on head coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
A win would do little to calm the criticism directed at the enigmatic German, while a loss could have mass implications on the direction of U.S. soccer under his tutelage.
But a pair of goals by Michel Bradley and Clint Dempsey, along with a Man of the Match performance by hometown hero Gyasi Zardes, were enough to give the Americans a 2-0 win in front of 20, 271 at the StubHub Center in Carson.
“I’m obviously pleased to see the team finish off this almost four weeks of camp in good style, a lot of energy,” Klinsmann said after the game. “Great crowd out here, a lot of energy. It was really fun.”
Miguel Ibarra was a pest against bigger, more physical Panama defenders on the left flank, but much like the rest of the U.S. team, he was ineffective in the final third of the field early on.
Panama began to control the pace as the game took a more fluid rhythm, and should’ve taken the lead in the 25th minute off the foot of Blas Perez. But a goal-saving slide near the goal line by Bradley kept Panama at bay.
Just two minutes later Bradley turned the tide with an Olympic goal worthy of any top 10 list. Jozy Altidore did his part to legally obstruct Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, but it was the slick curve on Bradley’s corner kick that buried the ball in the net.
The US began to win the midfield battle after the goal, and took a 2-0 lead in the 37th minute on Dempsey’s 40th career goal with the USMNT.
The play developed after Zardes stole the ball at midfield and cut across to his left side, as if to buy the offense time to develop. As he rolled left, he placed a perfect right-footed pass to Dempsey, who managed to get around Penedo, and then tapped the ball into an open net.
Zardes’ game did not go unnoticed, as he was the talk of the post game press conference.
“[Zardes] has shown that, without a doubt, he’s a guy that has to be in this group going forward,” Bradley said after the game. “He’s a great kid, great attitude, he comes everyday ready to listen, ready to learn, and he’s good to play with.”
“For me, if I see a little bit of space, I’ll take it,” said Zardes, who is coming off a breakout season with the Los Angeles Galaxy. “I know that field is huge, so you can take a touch and you can just go in that direction. I tried to use as much space as possible on that field.
Perez had Panama’s biggest opportunity to score in the 40th minute in front of the net against Rimando. He had Rolando Blackburn open for a tap-in, but opted to take a shot from a less-than-ideal angle, and blasted into the stands.
Save for its first ten minutes, the second half was rather uneventful.
Perry Kitchen and Matt Hedges made their international debuts for the U.S., and Yedlin and Altidore suffered injuries.
The US returned to a three-man backline, with Jermaine Jones as the anchor in the middle, and DeAndre Yedlin and Brek Shea on the flanks—although both Yedlin and Shea featured prominently up top several times.
Jones stood out as one of the best players on the field. He was aggressive when he needed to be, and a little bit daring pushing the ball upfield when he saw the opportunity to attack.
“I think you know [center back] is a position that Jermaine can play absolutely,” Klinsmann said. “It opens up a slot in midfield to see other talent coming through in midfield. And we keep working on it. I think the more he plays it, the more he settles with it and he’s more comfortable.”
The U.S. will play their next two games in Europe in late March—FIFA dates against Denmark and Switzerland respectively—before returning stateside to face Mexico in San Antonio April 15.