Soccer

No Big Deal: U.S. Team Loses to Panama in Lackluster Showing

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Word to the wise, nine times out of ten if you utter the words, "I'm working on a social experiment" in the midst of a cocktail party you're going to get a look from the other person like you're some grotesque, rejected Garbage Pail Kid.

Saturday night, though, your humble author opted for trying something different during a friend's birthday party: leaving his smartphone (an iPhone, yes, I suck) in the car. Somewhere in the recesses of my brain the decision to place more importance on -- yes -- talking to other people including old friends instead of the four part merry-go-round of:
1. Checking Twitter every seven seconds.

2. Following every pitch of the Tigers/Mariners game.
3. Checking my fantasy baseball team and finally
4. Looking at Facebook to see which of my "friends" was as pathetic as me by also looking at Facebook on a Saturday night.

God bless technology, right?

Addiction to looking at your phone isn't going away and its only going to get worse. (Bring on the nuetral implants!)

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As you can probably infer by now, the all-important Group C Gold Cup 2011 match between the U..S. and Panama didn't register into this party equation. Again, for a change, I put my friends, acquaintances, BFFs, "Frenemies," chums, pals, etc. ahead of what should have probably been a forgettable, inconsequential game in the grand scheme of things. Plus, where the party was being held didn't have Fox Soccer Channel so I didn't feel like waking it in Spanish language and have to explain myself to the other party goers every three minutes, because as we all know, nothing gets the party started quite like a game on Telefutura. (Boon-Boo-Ree, notwithstanding.)

Plus above all, it was only a Gold Cup group stage game against Panama in a stadium with a Pirate ship on the concourse.

Sometime later in the night my friend John started talking about how he heard that the U.S. actually lost 2-1. Huh? What? Really?

Fortunately we live in a world with ESPNEWS, which should easily be able to fill in a sports fan on all the comings and goings, if not in highlight form at least in bottom line ticker form. Turns out, the Gold Cup didn't ring out with the Powers That Be in Bristol, either. After 10 solid minutes the U.S./Panama score didn't come across the ticker, though plenty of College Baseball, WNBA and, yes, MLS scores did. Contrast it to a week prior and the U.S.'s 4-0 loss to Spain -- IN A FRIENDLY -- earned "The Lead" status on ESPN.

Long story short, when an international soccer tournament doesn't air on ESPN it must not matter to the American sporting public.

And maybe, in light of the U.S. losing on homesoil for the second time in seven days, it's not necessarily a bad thing.

Couple Game Thoughts:

* In the grand scheme of things, barring a loss to Guadeloupe which would be the worst (or most embarrassing) non-World Cup loss for the U.S. in recent memory the loss to Panama isn't worth over-reacting about. However, to any USSF/Bob Bradley apologist: it happened. You can't sweep it under the rug. The U.S. press secretaries cannot trumpet the team's undefeated run in Gold Cup group stage play.

It's not worth overreacting, if only because you get what you get out of your Soccer Federation. With Sunil Gulati & Co. completely bereft of fresh ideas, including re-hiring Bob Bradley for another four years (contract-wise) you're setting yourself up for this level of stagnation. Losing to Panama isn't the end or the world or nadir of U.S. soccer, but it's hard to say this loss or a loss of this type wasn't coming over the last five years.

Call it the continuation of a lingering malaise that's infected the U.S. program.

Of course when you operate in a min-vacuum like the USSF, with people only taking notice every four years at the World Cup or during high-profile made-for-ESPN friendlies, you can operate in this fashion and continue to make conservative choices, spin the setbacks that soccer is still a growing sport in America, etc. You can think small instead of dreaming big and get away with it through general apathy or tacit acceptance.

This might be an apples-to-oranges comparison, but why is it that the Mexican National Team goes out there looking to entertain and eviscerate opponents(*) in CONCACAF whereas the U.S. has to grind, grift and grapple with almost everyone? Are the non-Caribbean teams unafraid of that team Bradley has molded? Are teams thinking, unless they beat us up physically on set plays, we can expose the U.S.-backline and frustrate them if we make them try to complete more than three passes in-a-row by maintaining our defense shape?

(*) Everything is cylical, as El Tri was bordering on debacle status when Sven-Goran Eriksson was in charge. Those were the days.

Panama, from what I saw in the quick DVR-rewatch and postgame highlights didn't quite fear the U.S., at all.

* One thing even the most ardent Bradley apologist/supporter is going to have a tough time defending is the U.S. falling down by two goals -- again -- and then not starting to play until the 60-minute mark of the second half. In a tournament setting that's simply inexcusable. Fortunately the game vs. Panama wasn't a knockout game.

True, you could say, if the U.S. converts one of its slew of chances -- namely Chris Wondolowski open-netter tap-in -- and this match finishes in a draw and nobody much raises an eyebrow.

The most distressing fact about this is, clearly the slow starts are now in the U.S. First XI's head and nobody seems to know how to address or change it. Imagine, now in hindsight, what if the Canadian keeper didn't pull a "Gomes" on Jozy Altidore's shot in the Gold Cup opener.

* Maybe the saddest thing about the Panama game is that the two worst players on the field for the U.S. was Bradley's new central defense choices of Tim Ream and Clarence Goodson. Ream gave away a bad penalty for the second Panama goal, while Goodson is fortunate he didn't give up an own-goal on the first, because it almost went off him.

Bradley, now, is in a Catch-22. If there was anything to gain from the Gold Cup it was developing a new defensive core to move toward 2014 with since other than the bizarre inclusion of Freddy Adu there wasn't that much to learn from this 23-man squad. This month, neither Ream or Goodson (29 years old, remember) have distinguished themselves all that much -- and have a true howler to their names vs. Panama.

What do you do? Pull the plug in must-win games here on out, move Carlos Bocanegra inward, dust off Oguchi Onyewu and hope for the best?

It's probably not fair to throw Ream(*) under the bus, yet for all the supporters out there yearning for him to be great, it hasn't happened yet. He might be a good passer out of the back, but you have to play some defense there, too. We'll see what kind of message Bradley sends, if he sticks with the newer guys or makes rash changes with the money on the line?

(*) Add Ream to the unfortunate list of young American soccer players: hyped like crazy, then torn down and then ... ?

* Again, it makes perfect sense, everyone has penciled in U.S./Mexico in the final -- Sports Illustrated even published it in its latest magazine. Watch if one of the two CONCACAF giants doesn't make it to the Rose Bowl for the tournament final. Mexico, at least, can rest players for its final group game even if it's roster is in shambles after "Chicken-Gate." The U.S.? If it makes the final it's going to be a grind with a lot of aging legs logging a lot of minutes, especially after the European season in the case of guys like Bocanegra (nice hip check in the final seconds), Steve Cherundolo, etc.

* Stuff you can't make up: The U.S.'s only goal is scored by a defender on a set piece, this time by Goodson.

* Is it possible for Landon Donovan to wear a shirt in this postgame interview with Fox Soccer, or by the same token, could FSC wait until he's cooled down for some thoughts. The whole thing was beyond undignified.

Oh, and Donovan admitted the U.S. was complacent heading into the game. That's the kind of attitude the USSF has foster post-2010 World Cup, which is ultimately beyond disheartening.

* On the FSC Postgame, you could sense Eric Wynalda wanted to pull the knives out, but keep it all in perspective. Don't hate me for saying this, but I've grown to not totally dislike Wynalda on FSC. Plus, as an ex-player, he's done a fine job transitioning to studio host, which is much harder than being an analyst.

* Good email from my friend Tom suggesting that Juan Agudelo, at this point in his career, is better as an impact sub in the final 15 minutes and maybe the U.S. should adopt a 4-3-3 formation with Donovan and Clint Dempsey flanking Jozy Altidore. It's an idea to ponder, though with The Elder's track record, he's not implementing a new system on the fly mid-tournament. He's not programmed to think that way.

Final thought:

A year ago, on June 12, 2010 the U.S. managed a memorable 1-1 draw with mighty England in Rustenburg, South Africa, in its first World Cup group stage match.

Today, we're left wondering how a team with seven of those same starters lost in Tampa to Panama.