USMNT stumbles to uninspired 1-1 tie with Panama in Gold Cup opener

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One of the first things to decide when you enter the off-year CONCACAF Gold Cup is what you’re hoping to get out of it. The regional championship is held every two years, but it only matters every four, when it doesn’t coincide with World Cup qualifying.

This is not such an edition. This is the one where the top nations, such as they are in this part of the world, send B-teams in order to rest the stars for the more important qualifiers.

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And the United States’s B-team, which might yet be beefed up with a few ringers before the knockout stages, got off to a fetid start with a 1-1 tie against Panama in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday. Dom Dwyer put the Yanks ahead just after halftime, before Miguel Camargo equalized.

Perhaps greedily, Bruce Arena hopes to get two things out of this July tournament. To win the thing, after arch-rivals Mexico claimed three of the last four editions. And to find players who might fill out his roster for next summer’s World Cup in Russia, assuming the Americans qualify.

Dom Dwyer (14) and Panama’s Jan Carlos Vargas and Jose Calderon (ground) helped their teams battle to a standstill. (Getty)
Dom Dwyer (14) and Panama’s Jan Carlos Vargas and Jose Calderon (ground) helped their teams battle to a standstill. (Getty)

Against the 52nd-ranked team in the world, which has never reached a World Cup and never won a Gold Cup, Arena’s team looked capable of producing neither. A collectively languid performance in a game played in a heat index of 92 degrees didn’t give a good account of the Americans. Almost none of them supported their case for more A-team minutes.

Except for Dwyer, perhaps, who has now scored in both his U.S. appearances after the English-born striker got a goal against Ghana on his July 1 debut. In a tortuous — and sometimes torturous — game, he made the most of the lone chance his cohorts managed to supply.

And except, for that matter, the lively Kelyn Rowe, who stood out in a game slowed by the heat. Rowe gave two warning shots that conspired to be the only American chances of the first half with zippy shots from some distance.

Following a fairly vigorous start by Panama, the sides mostly took turns settling behind the ball and resting for the next push forward. This sort of rhythm very rarely makes for a compelling game. And it didn’t this time either. Like so many CONCACAF matches, this match was an extended question of whether the U.S. and its relatively limited capabilities on the ball would be sufficient to pry open a double-locked defense.

Ominously, Panama got close first. Camargo, of Major League Soccer’s New York City FC, got inside of Graham Zusi and curled a low shot to the far post, where Guzan managed to push it away.

But five minutes after the intermission, Rowe managed to squirm by a pair of defenders up the left with some trickery and hit a low cross. Dwyer checked to the ball well and one-timed a spinning shot into the low, far corner.

From then on, however, all the danger emanated from Los Canaleros. A Gabriel Torres header from a cross was saved well by Guzan. On the rebound, Ismael Diaz somehow airmailed the point-blank tap-in.

Panama was gifted a clear shot on Guzan’s goal but missed the target before the American goalkeeper saved on Torres in the 60th minute. But Camargo put the rebound through a thicket of legs and beat the goalkeeper to equalize.

The closest the Americans would get to a winner was a feeble penalty shot by Alejandro Bedoya in the 82nd minute, when he was shouldered off the ball fairly in Panama’s box.

The dearth of American chances was disconcerting. There was a broad lack of imagination, with most of the play running over the wings and resulting in big crosses that found nobody — save for the lone exception, Dwyer’s goal. The central midfield tandem of Dax McCarty and Kellyn Acosta disappointed. In front of them, Joe Corona, and his replacement Juan Agudelo, were fairly anonymous. Bedoya spent much of his time tracking back. The defense was hardly unimpeachable.

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Here’s the good news for the United States: While it ought to beat Panama with a B-team, even in spite of the Americans’ recent trouble beating Hernan Gomez’s team, it likely won’t much matter in the bigger sweep of the group stage. Because this game will be followed by matches with Martinique on Wednesday and Nicaragua next Saturday.

Martinique is ranked 85th in the world by ELO; it has no FIFA ranking because as a territory of France, it isn’t recognized as a separate entity from the French national team by the global governing body. Nicaragua is ranked 105th. The U.S. will surely advance to the quarterfinals. And it’s still a favorite to win the group, probably on goal difference.

So this Gold Cup campaign is hardly derailed at this juncture. But as for that other objective — finding some useful players for next summer — Saturday’s was an ignominious start.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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