WASHINGTON -- What happened to that dangerous Panamanian side that nearly upset the U.S. National Team a month ago in Panama City?
The same group of players may have showed up to take on the Americans in the nation's capital, but it hardly seemed the same.
In the United States' 6-0 victory at RFK Stadium on Wednesday night, Bruce Arena's squad was stronger in all facets of the game than the visitors.
"It was a dominating performance," said striker Josh Wolff.
That it was. Yet, it was also a very poor showing from a Panama side that has a lot of talented players who simply never showed up.
Maybe it was the cold weather -- 50-something temps are considered freezing when you live on the edge of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Maybe it was the fact that the Americans knew what to expect this time and how to defend Panama's top players. Or perhaps it was the situation.
Going into the 1-1 draw back on Sept. 8, the Canaleros were a happy-go-lucky side that was just starting to get recognition in its own country.
But after outplaying the power team in the region for most of the match and coming within a mere 90 seconds of pulling off the biggest win in its country's history, expectations came. Expectations to get out of the four-team group and reach the final round of World Cup qualifying for the first time ever.
Now with only five points (1-2-2) in five matches, it's doubtful that's going to happen. The upstart Reds will need help to move on.
But enough about Panama.
It is the Americans who came into this round as the favorites with the bullseye on their collective backs.
And despite some tense moments on the road -- what might have happened had Brian Ching and Jones not struck gold in the waning moments of the Jamaica and Panama matches? -- they are the ones moving on to the final round of qualifying with an unblemished 3-0-2 record. They also have a full game to spare even with a match against Jamaica in Columbus looming on Nov. 17.
"Six points at home, no losses on the road," pointed out Arena, whose team extended its unbeaten streak to 12 games that dates back to the 1-0 loss to Holland on Feb. 18. "If you were going to go into the lab and plan on how to do it, this is the way to do it."
Here are four observations from the match:
A month ago, Arena's starting XI included Clint Mathis, Conor Casey, Brian Ching, Claudio Reyna and Greg Vanney. While a few of those players surely would have helped the cause on Wednesday night, the insertion of Josh Wolff up front and Eddie Lewis in the midfield, in particular gave the U.S. a lot more speed to counter Panama's quick players all over the field. The collective speed within the American midfield, alone, changed the game, as Panama tired while trying to keep up.
"The speed of Donovan and Beasley in the midfield really gave them problems," said Arena.
Up top, it was McBride's ball-winning in the air and Wolff's speed and darting runs that opened up the defense, as did his precise passing. The Kansas City Wizards star striker got the Americans going with a perfectly played ball to Landon Donovan from the left side of the box that resulted in the team's first goal of the night.
What was most impressive about Wolff's ball to the six-yard box was how he froze the defense by looking off a streaking Beasley through the center of the box before sliding his pass through to a space he knew Donovan would get on the secondary runner from the backside.
"I could see Landon coming and I almost wanted to hit the ball a little bit higher," said Wolff. "It took a bit of a dip on me when I hit it. I was trying to avoid some other guys' legs and trying to get the ball right across the (six-yard) box pretty hard ... Landon did fantastic with the finish."
The U.S. also dominated on the left side of the field with Carlos Bocanegra moving out to left back from his usual centerback post and Lewis playing as the left-sided midfielder with Beasley moving to the right. The two accounted for three assists on the evening, with Bocanegra finding Eddie Johnson on his first two goals and Lewis sneaking a ball in to the Burn striker for his third and final tally.
In addition, it was their combined defensive play on right wing Ricardo Phillips that took him out of the match, which is a far cry from the diminutive striker's impact a month ago when he raced by U.S. defenders at will during the second half and set up Panama's goal.
The wide-open attacking style and fearlessness it showed in front of its own fans at Estadio Rommel Fernandez was gone. Instead, Panama was more physical and less organized. In fact, it looked as though the game plan was to knock players like Beasley and McBride off their games with hard fouls in the early going. Panama also relied solely on playing long balls to the front-runners, which the U.S. prepared for all week.
"Bruce (Arena) knew exactly what they were going to do," said a smirking Gregg Berhalter, who started his second straight match for the U.S.
It's one thing to know what's going to happen, and another to stop it, which the back four did time and time again.
"Our whole defense was based on winning the first ball," said Berhalter.
What also didn't help Panama was the disappearance of the team's number 10 shirt, Julio Medina, who looked ordinary. Of course, that's far from how one would describe him from the first encounter. The magic he had on that night was not there, and without his lack of creativity in the midfield, the forward tandem of Roberto Brown and Julio Dely Valdes wasn't able to receive balls in dangerous situations.
"The last time out I think their midfield did a good job," said Eddie Pope. "This time, they couldn't dribble, and our midfield did an excellent job of shutting them down. It made it easy for us on the backline to do our job."
For the first 50 or so minutes of the match, centerback Carlos Rivera and left back Luis Moreno were impressive and most likely caught the eyes of the several player agents who came to RFK to scout for talent. But by the end of the match, it was hard to point out any positive performances for the away side.
When Reyna returns to the national team sometime in 2005 for the final round of qualifying, he'll take back the captain's armband that Donovan wore the last two matches in his absence.
But the Manchester City midfielder's personality no longer defines the team. It's also no longer the case that the team goes how Reyna goes. It now goes how Donovan goes.
Such was the case on Wednesday when his two goals electrified the crowd and inspired his teammates around him.
"Landon needs challenges, but he's a fantastic player," said Arena. "When you challenge him and he responds, you see what kind of player he is. Landon's a great player. I don't think anyone doubts that. If you can find that kind of consistency out of Landon at the club level and the international level, he's going to be a player to be reckoned with."
It doesn't matter to Arena that Donovan is 22. Instead of age, what he sees is a player who has been playing with the national team as a regular for over two years, and someone who has played well in a World Cup already. He's also helped lead the San Jose Earthquakes to MLS Cup titles in two of the last three years. Because of that experience, he's taken the reigns off his most talented player and has put his trust in him.
"He lets Beas and I just kind of roam around and do what we're good at," said Donovan of the switching that he and Beasley often do during a match. "Defensively, we help out where we can and we pick our spots. Usually when we have the freedom to go places we want to help out defensively - we want to get the ball back.
"It's a nice mentality to have on the field that you don't have to worry and you can just play. That's how we play our best."
Donovan has put all of his tools on display recently, having scored on a well-struck volley and off a calm finish where he froze the goalkeeper against Panama.
Earlier in the week, he did it with his passing, as his quick slip-pass across the box made for an easy goal by Johnson. Going back to the 2-0 win over El Salvador on Sept. 4, he showed his range to score from outside the area with a bending dart from over 20 yards out.
Even though he has stayed in MLS while Bayer Leverkusen -- the German club who owns his rights through 2007 -- has waited patiently to see how he'd do in the Bundesliga, his game hasn't suffered. It's only prospered and become more well-rounded.
If there's a finer player in the region right now, please stand up.
Apparently, his goal against El Salvador just four minutes into his first appearance for the U.S. was a mere appetizer of what he is capable of doing in a red, white and blue jersey. By scoring three goals after coming on for McBride in the 67th minute, it was a true breakout performance for the 20-year-old Dallas Burn striker.
"It was pretty amazing," said McBride. "I don't think I've ever seen someone come on and score a hat trick like that."
Johnson's hat trick in 23 minutes of work marked the first time a U.S. player has done that as a substitute. It also marked only the eighth time its been done by a U.S. player, period, and the first time someone has scored three or more goals in a game since Donovan struck for four goals against Cuba on July 19, 2003. It's also the third time it has ever happened in qualifying, going all the way back to the immortal Peter Millar, who accomplished the feat in 1968.
After his super-sub effort, Johnson summed up his play by saying: "This is one of those games where everything went well for me tonight."
One of Johnson's many admirers in attendance was D.C. United head coach Peter Nowak, who said he wasn't surprised to see the 20-year-old have success at the international level.
"Eddie has always been very dangerous," said Nowak, whose club has clinched a playoff berth in his first year on the sidelines. "He has that ability to score, but is one of those players who cannot do all the work to make it happen. He needs the helps of his teammates. So when he plays at this level with all the talent around him, he's going to score goals.
"To go along with guys like Donovan and Beasley, Eddie is one of the talented young kids you're going to see with the national team for a long time."
Marc Connolly covers American soccer for ESPN Soccernet.com. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org