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Jul 16, 2009

Depleted U.S. faces tough test from Panama

If coach Bob Bradley is going keep the U.S. national team's successful summer going, and if he is going to add another Gold Cup trophy to the trophy case, he will have to do so with a shell of the team he started the 2009 Gold Cup with. From Charlie Davies to Benny Feilhaber, Steve Cherundolo to Michael Parkhurst, player after player has left the U.S. team to prepare for their European seasons, and the conga line of departure means when Bradley's team takes the field against Panama on Saturday in Philadelphia it will be as vulnerable to a Gold Cup defeat as it has been in six years. Bradley doesn't see it that way. He has faith in the group he has left, even though it could be best described as a U.S. "C" team, made up of very few players who could be considered to have a serious chance of playing in the 2010 World Cup. "The group that we have here at the moment covers everything," Bradley said of the team he has left. "We have had a chance in this tournament to get different players on the field, and I think we've seen, especially with defenders, Heath Pearce, Clarence Goodson, Chad Marshall, Jimmy Conrad, Jay Heaps and Brad Evans have all gotten experience in this tournament and have all done well. "In that regard, we feel good about the way things have developed, and there's no need to add players just for this game." Panama will look to prove otherwise. The Central American team has faced the U.S. national team several times in the past five years but has never been able to beat the Americans. Saturday will provide the best opportunity for a nucleus of Panamanians that pushed the United States to penalty kicks in the 2005 Gold Cup final and lost a hard-fought 2-1 decision in the 2007 Gold Cup quarterfinals. "The two previous losses in this tournament is something of a motivation for us to try and reverse that result," said Panama coach Gary Stempel. "Obviously you have to respect everything the States has done. It's no coincidence now that they have players going to clubs like AC Milan, and I'm sure that will continue. "We expect another tough game, and hopefully the preparations are a bit better this time." Anyone doubting Panama's ability to spring the upset need only look at its feisty 1-1 draw versus Mexico in group play. Led in the back by standout central defender Felipe Baloy, defensive midfield Gabriel Gomez and goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, the Panamanians have the defensive qualities to deal with the short-handed U.S. attack. Just who will lead the Americans offensively now that Davies and Feilhaber have departed? Houston Dynamo teammates Brian Ching and Stuart Holden should spearhead the attack, with Holden coming in having scored two goals and set up two others in two games played. Bradley will need to settle on a strike partner for Ching, with Davy Arnaud and Kenny Cooper in consideration. If Holden can create, and Robbie Rogers can cause problems on the flank, the Americans should find success against Panama much the same way Guadeloupe found success against the same team in the tournament's opening match (a 2-1 loss by Panama). The real question is which U.S. defense will show up. Will it be the one that posted consecutive shutouts to start the tournament, or the one that was run ragged by Haiti in a 2-2 tie last Saturday? While the reality is that the defense that faced Haiti was made up mainly of reserves, at least two of the starting defenders from that match should start against Panama. The good news for the Americans is that the two defenders likely to stay in are the ones who actually didn't do badly against Haiti. Jimmy Conrad was solid in his first national-team action in a year and a half, while Brad Evans showed he is a capable right back option (which is good news for Bradley, considering he has no other right backs on the roster). Bradley will be able to take solace in the fact that veteran left back Heath Pearce will come back into the lineup, as will reigning MLS Defender of the Year Chad Marshall, who has been the team's best defender this tournament.

Gold Cup quarterfinals
Saturday
Canada vs. Honduras
Lincoln Financial Field; Philadelphia
5 p.m. ET

U.S. vs. Panama
Lincoln Financial Field; Philadelphia
8 p.m. ET

Sunday
Guadeloupe vs. Costa Rica
Dallas Cowboys Stadium; Arlington, Texas
3 p.m. ET

Mexico vs. Haiti
Dallas Cowboys Stadium; Arlington, Texas
6 p.m. ET

Marshall was extremely impressive in shutting down Honduran star striker Carlos Costly in group play, but he will have his hands full yet again, this time with Panamanian striker Blas Perez, a tall and deceptively quick striker with a cannon for a shot. If Marshall can contain Perez, the rest of the U.S. defense will have a much easier time dealing with the likes of Ricardo Phillips and Jose Luis Garces, as well as the speedy Victor Herrera, who is sure to test Evans on the left flank. The Americans are still the favorites to advance despite all the player departures, but beating Panama with the remaining group is going to be just as tough as beating Panama has been for the past two Gold Cups. That's exactly how Bob Bradley wants it. There's a reason he hasn't called in any of the seven extra roster players he's free to call in. While he publicly expresses confidence in the remaining group he has, he must also want to put the pressure on this current group of U.S. national team players to see how they handle the responsibility of keeping a great summer going. While it isn't the same pressure as facing Brazil in the Confederations Cup final, it just might feel that way for this young group of Americans come Saturday. Here's a look at the other Gold Cup quarterfinals: Canada versus Honduras This matchup pits two teams who last met in the second round of World Cup qualifying, a round that saw Honduras reach the Hexagonal and Canada lose out on World Cup 2010. Julian de Guzman, Atiba Hutchinson and Paul Stalteri have helped the Canadians control every game they've played (De Guzman and Hutchinson missed the 2-2 tie versus Costa Rica to avoid yellow cards), while Ali Gerba has emerged as a reliable goal-scoring threat. Honduras comes in having lost only to the United States in group play. "Los Catrachos" boast a speedy trio of forwards led by the dynamic Carlos Costly, who will give the Canadians problems all day. The key for Honduras will be getting past Canada's potent midfield. The speed of Jamaica provided a good test for Canada, which should be the favorite in this match. Mexico versus Haiti Coach Javier Aguirre won't be on the sidelines for this one, but the Mexicans will still be expected to roll through their Caribbean opponent. With Giovani Dos Santos creating, Gerardo Torrado commanding the midfield and Guillermo Ochoa serving as one of the best goalkeepers in the tournament, Mexico has the defensive fortitude to deal with an unpredictable and underrated opponent. There isn't a bigger -- or more dangerous -- underdog in the quarterfinals than Haiti. Boasting speedy and skillful attackers capable of unsettling the most disciplined of defenses, Haiti is a coming off an impressive draw versus the United States and will enter with that confidence when it takes on the Mexicans. Look for Fabrice Noel and Lionel St. Preux to go right at a weaker-than-usual Mexican defense that has yet to really be tested this tournament. Guadeloupe versus Costa Rica Costa Rica entered the tournament expected to be one of the favorites to lift the trophy, and after overcoming a slow start, "Los Ticos" are on the path to proving that their success in the Hexagonal is no fluke. Guadeloupe isn't about to make things easy. After starting the tournament 2-0, the Gwada Boys rested several starters in their 2-0 loss to Mexico. Guadeloupe's dangerous attack is lead by FC Utrecht's Loic Loval, FC Zurich striker Alexandre Alphonse and Dundee forward Mickael Antoine-Curier. David Fleurival and Aurelien Capoue do the creative work in midfield and will need to deal with Costa Rican star Celso Borges, one of the best young players in CONCACAF. The key for Los Ticos will be using their quick counterattack to trouble Guadeloupe's suspect defense. Costa Rica could have a bit of an advantage in the quarterfinal because the game is being played on artificial turf at Dallas Cowboys Stadium, and while the turf in Dallas is sure to be miles better than the turf at Estadio Saprissa in San Jose, Costa Rica should benefit to some degree because of its familiarity with this type of surface. Expect a wide-open game that just might be the most exciting match of the quarterfinals.

Ives Galarcep covers the U.S. national team and MLS for ESPN Soccernet. He also writes a blog, Soccer By Ives. He can be reached at Ivespn79@aol.com.

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