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Talking Tactics

Scouting Report: How the U.S. Can Beat Panama

Panama has gotten some good results in the Hexagonal, including a 2-0 win over Honduras. Will the U.S. have what it takes to get three points in Seattle? ASN tactician Liviu Bird assesses the possibilities.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
June 09, 2013
8:06 PM
SEATTLE—A World Cup qualifier against Panama is a risky proposition for the United States national team. The opponent is beatable, but also has the ability to punish teams that don’t give it the respect it deserves when it has the ball.

On Tuesday against the United States, Panama will be missing its biggest offensive threat in Blas Perez, who is stuck at home with gastrointestinal problems. Even with him in the lineup, La Marea Roja struggled to find scoring chances in a 0-0 draw against Mexico on Friday.

Still, looking at its results, Panama will be a bigger test for the U.S. than Jamaica was. If you have the time, Parts 1 and 2 of this video would be educational, but we draw out the highlights below.

Creativity and Flair

As most Central American squads tend to do, Panama plays with fluidly and style in attack. Consider this sequence of passes. And this nearly executed set-piece play.

The Panamanians will build out of the back, and all of them have good composure and ability on the ball. They throw decent numbers into the attack when they go forward, and their play is marked by one- and two-touch passes in the middle along with wide options that are willing to take defenders on.

The trouble is, once they get above the midfield line, attacks seem to fizzle. Missing the normal target striker will only exacerbate the troubles they had against Mexico, but Panama has scored five goals in four matches, only one of which came off Perez’s foot.

In the Back

Throwing as many numbers forward as Panama does can leave it exposed defensively. Both outside backs will push at the same time, leaving a two-on-one situation among the center backs and striker.

If the defenders outnumber the attacking players, that’s not a problem. If an opponent were to hold two players high, then it becomes more of an issue. In defense, teams almost always want to outnumber the opponent by at least one.

When Mexico had clear possession of the ball on Friday, Panama sat back. It drew an extremely deep line of confrontation, beyond even its half of the center circle, and sat all 11 players behind the ball.

At times, Perez even dropped to where the yellow oval is on this graphic. Panama seems content to absorb pressure if the ball is under control, and it will hold a line of players inside the 18-yard box to clear crosses when it goes wide.

U.S. Adjustments

Michael Bradley’s role will be under the microscope on Tuesday. His ability to create attacks from a deep-lying position becomes vital when teams sit back to absorb pressure. The wingers will also be able to step up higher, either preoccupying Panama’s outside backs so they cannot press or taking advantage of the gaps when they do.

The key will be playing through the middle and drawing defenders out of position. Panama’s center backs will step with a forward checking off the front line, and supporting defenders are slow to cover, leaving holes to exploit.

Pumping ball after ball into the box would make for a boring game of attrition. Instead, the U.S. has to find ways to combine through the midfield and pull opponents out of position.

Déjà vu?

Tuesday’s game could be reminiscent of the U.S.’s semifinal round matches against Antigua & Barbuda, except that Panama has much more ability. The biggest danger will be getting caught out on the counter attack, as La Marea Roja loves to poach the ball off attackers and move the ball quickly up the field before they can recover.

Attacks on both sides should be plentiful on Tuesday—constant pressure from the U.S. and incisive counters from Panama. It will take quality for the Americans to win, but anything less than three points would be a failure.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. He is also American Soccer Now’s resident tactical expert. Follow him on Twitter.

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