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Soccer Breakdown: Lessons Learned from USA vs. Panama

First thing's first, there is a special ring of purgatory reserved for an American soccer blogger/writer with the temerity to poo-poo a result on foreign soil ... even in a no-stakes friendly. In that regard, let's say a hearty well done for Graham Zusi for being Johnny on the spot and scoring inside of 11 minutes and the rest of the U.S. players for holding off a semi-dangerous Panama team for about 30 minutes after Geoff Cameron's straight red card.

It gave Jurgen Klinsmann a solid 2-0-0 start to the 2012 campaign before next month's higher-profile friendly with the dastardly Italians in Genoa. If anything, it's better to see U.S. 1, Panama 0 for the next couple hours on the ESPN crawl, right?

At the same time, there was something, let's say retrogressive about Wednesday night's friendly, though not from a sporting standpoint. It simply felt, oh, like it was 1995 all over again.

During the afternoon on Wednesday American soccer fans were treated, first, to a taunt Liverpool second-leg Carling Cup semifinal victory over Manchester City on Fox Soccer, followed by the second-leg of the Copa del Rey quarterfinal between eternal blood rivals Real Madrid and Barcelona. Depending where you were those games were aired in crisp, sparkling HD with pulsating atmospheres at hallowed soccer grounds at Anfield and the Camp Nou, where the eyes -- and tweets -- of the world cast their gaze.

This isn't a U.S. can never be as good at soccer as it is in Europe argument, yet here it was a couple hours later and the U.S./Panama match wasn't available on cable in English, relegated to ESPN3 online and Galavasision's embarassingly awful Spanish broadcast in murky, standard definition.

Again, this is probably taking complaining on the Internet to another level, yet this felt like the days when my father and I would scramble and cross our fingers a U.S. game would -- if we were lucky -- air on Univision.

In short, everything felt a little second rate from what we've grown accustomed to, if in a totally spoiled first-world problem (ugh, buzzword) type of way.

However you frame it, the eyes of the world weren't exactly fixated on the Estadio Rommel Fernandez(*) for the U.S.'s 1-0 win over host Panama.  

(*) Wonder if David Lee Roth and or Van Halen have ever performed a concert there? (C'mon, you know I'm not writing anything about Panama without sneaking a Diamond Dave or Teddy Roosevelt reference, however forced.) 

Again, quality result for the U.S. "B/C" team. Did anyone on the field against Panama -- or Venezuela -- exactly distinguish himself for Herr Klinsmann going forward? Considering the German head coach still seems to rate Michael Orozco-Fiscal, it's thoroughly impossible to read between his ears.

Brek Shea, hellbent on a move to England apparently, is a lively player with a lot of drive and power wherever you stick him on the field. Nick Rimando, too, is solid as per usual in goal and should even at 32 remain in the mix as a second or third keeper.

The Bob Bradley-approved "Captain" Jermaine Jones and Ricardo Clark didn't do anything great or awful. Jones, for better or worse, appears right in the thick of Klinsmann's plans, even if the German-born midfielder's best chance to help the U.S. was probably in 2010 rather than 2014. If Jones reigns himself in, he's effective, but it all depends on what his role is: destroyer? disruptor? creator? shield? He launched some missiles from deep, but again drew a yellow card.

Clark? Glad he got a positive memory with the 97th minute winner vs. Venezuela, but if Kyle Beckerman didn't withdraw from the squad does he even see the field? Hard to see Clark vaulting past Beckerman or Michael Bradley or Maurice Edu or even Stuart Holden in the middle of the U.S. central midfield pecking order.

Moving on.

Tactically(*), with the U.S. playing a standard 4-4-2, until Cameron's sending off, the main focus of the attack seemed to come from the flanks. If this is going to be the main offensive strategy going forward, when the full U.S. team is called in it better be somebody like Shea serving crosses toward Clint Dempsey, not the other way around. If there's one thing Dempsey does -- obviously he does more -- but the Texan knows how to finish off movements in the box.

(*) These two matches weren't exactly the free-flowing, revoluntionary soccer Klinsmann hinted at in August, no?

Hard to say any of the U.S. forwards who saw the field did enough to declare themselves worthy of being called in for the Italy match -- which figures to be Euro-based player packed. Teal Bunbury has potential, but at what level? CONCACAF or a higher international? Chris Wondolowski is a nice MLS grinder and has the worst luck in a national team shirt, getting denied on an absolutely brilliant reaction save by Luis Mejia.

In typical U.S. two steps forward, one step back fashion Cameron shined against Venezuela only to get sent off for an arm bar on Blas Perez, who'd run behind the defense and had a clear 1-v-1 with Sean Johnson unless the Houston Dynamo man interceded. Did Perez let his feet go out from him rather easily? Sure. At the same time, in the state of the modern soccer game what is and isn't a red card anymore? Who knows. Cameron might have been better off stamping on Perez rather than leaning into his with his forearm.

Again, considering his track record it's probably fruitless to guess what Klinsmann gleaned from this month of practices and two friendlies. Aside from the Bundesliga Badboy, "Captain" Jermaine and Shea nobody else who featured is a sure-thing to play next month in Italy. Maybe a couple of the players, say, Zusi did enough to warrant a spot on a roster vs. a CONCACAF minnow to save guys like Dempsey or Landon Donovan a trip across the Atlantic. 

Like most USMNT January friendlies, the best approach is to take the Homer Simpson reaction to the family's ill-fated shortcut to Itchy & Scratchy Land. So, as he said, "Let us never speak of this again."


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