Bob Bradley wants his team to suffer.
No, the U.S. men's national soccer team coach isn't a sadist or out to lose the job he only recently got on a full-time basis. Bradley wants his team to deal with as much adversity as possible because he knows that is the only way he will identify which players can handle the rigors of national team duty. It's also the best way to prepare his players for the long road to the 2010 World Cup.
Panama provided the challenge and Bradley's team responded. No, it wasn't a dream performance, but the value in the team's 2-1 victory went far beyond simply getting the U.S. team into the Gold Cup semifinals.
Consider that the match marked the first appearance in an elimination game for U.S. starters Tim Howard, Michael Bradley, Jonathan Bornstein and Taylor Twellman. We learned something about each of these players against Panama, as did Bradley.
"I think our young guys compete pretty well and they've been in some good games throughout this year," Bradley said. "Now there's good leadership. I keep talking about the number of guys who are doing a really good job setting an example."
"It was a tough game, and we expected that, so to see our team respond and see some of our younger players in that type of environment is certainly valuable."
Howard showed that he is more than capable of making the big save to keep his team in a game. A veteran of three seasons in England, Howard has already played in his share of big matches, including an FA Cup final and Champions League matches, but Saturday was his first U.S. game with something on the line and he delivered with a key save on Blas Perez that kept the game from being 1-0 Panama early in the second half. There wasn't much doubt going into the match that Howard deserved to be No. 1 but he drove home the point with that clutch stop and has had a solid tournament to date.
No player's stock rose higher than Michael Bradley's. Criticized for his play in the group stage, Bradley responded by delivering the type of steady performance that you expect of a player 10 years his senior. His patience on the ball, ability to consistently make the right pass and tireless work rate made him a key factor in helping slow down Panama's attack and also solidified his role in the tournament's remaining matches.
If Bradley succeeded in proving that he is capable of performing in a crucial match, Twellman managed to bolster concerns about his ability to perform on the international level. The New England striker was in his home stadium and received his share of chances, but squandered them all. To his credit, Twellman was active and continuously put himself in good positions to receive service and get off shots, but time after time he failed to hit the mark.
The scary thing is that as disappointing as it was to watch every Twellman chance go begging, he may just be the best Bob Bradley has to work with right now among American forwards. Eddie Johnson has looked no better in his appearances and while Brian Ching has shown the most impressive flashes, his fitness is clearly an issue. This was evidenced by his clear signs of fatigue in limited minutes against Panama.
These are the reasons why Bradley turned to Clint Dempsey to help solve his answers at forward and why Dempsey is now the national team's best forward option. If the match did anything, it probably showed Bradley that the attacking lineup he put out against El Salvador in the final group match, which placed Dempsey alone up top with Landon Donovan and DaMarcus Beasley working off him, is the only way to go against Canada.
That alignment, with a midfield trio of Michael Bradley, Pablo Mastroeni and Benny Feilhaber anchoring a central midfield triangle, is best suited to not only attack Canada's vulnerable defense, but also to help slow down a Canada midfield that is arguably the best in the tournament.
The U.S. defense was solid for the most part against Panama, except for stretches early and late in the second half when the Central Americans kept the United States on its heels. There was a very real sense of disappointment with the performance of the defense after the match, in part because Panama did exactly what the Americans knew it would do -- pump balls up top to Perez, and still found success. The simple strategy wasn't supposed to work against an organized U.S. defense, but it did as Perez had a handful of chances and eventually burned the Americans with a moment of brilliance on Panama's lone goal.
Some of the veterans in the back continued to make mistakes, including Frankie Hejduk, who worked hard and helped contain Panama winger Victor Herrera, but who still makes too many errors that leave American fans biting their nails. Oguchi Onyewu's performance was promising. He battled toe-to-toe with Perez and didn't get discouraged in the second half even as the match official began awarding free kicks if Onyewu even looked at an opponent. He's still not the in-form player American fans remember a year ago but Saturday's performance is something to build on.
From the shaky moments on defense, to the wasted chances offensively, Saturday's win against Panama provided the U.S. team with plenty of the type of adversity Bob Bradley wants his team to deal with. The match also provided evidence that the U.S. team had better tighten up if it expects to beat a Canada squad that will feature the most dangerous attack the Americans have seen this year, let alone this tournament. After watching Canada's 3-0 mauling of Guatemala, Bradley knows his team is in for a battle.
Bradley wouldn't have it any other way.
Ives Galarcep covers MLS for ESPNsoccernet. He is a writer and columnist for the Herald News (N.J.) and writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.