U.S. soccer readies for Gold Cup rematch with Panama


Clint Dempsey (8) got to celebrate one of the U.S. team’s goals Sunday against Jamaica at RFK Stadium, helping the Americans get back on track in the Gold Cup. (JOSE LUIS MAGANA/REUTERS)

Bob Bradley, coach of the U.S. men’s national soccer team, has been accused over the years of being too rigid and predictable in his lineup selections. No one could make that claim after Sunday’s invigorating victory over Jamaica at RFK Stadium.

Bradley’s bold choices resurrected the CONCACAF Gold Cup effort, and in doing so, might have saved his job. By introducing two new starters and a fresh formation, the Americans played with renewed commitment and exploited the Reggae Boyz’ vulnerability to secure a sixth consecutive semifinal berth.

It’s unclear how Bradley will approach Wednesday’s rematch against Panama, which on June 11 handed the United States its first-ever loss in the group stage of the 20-year-old tournament. But his improvisation helped breathe life into a stale campaign and put the program back on course for a highly anticipated showdown against Mexico in Saturday’s final at the Rose Bowl.

The U.S.-Panama semifinal will precede Mexico’s meeting with Honduras at sold-out Reliant Stadium in Houston.

While keeping faith in veterans Tim Howard, Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore on Sunday, Bradley also delved into his bench and summoned midfielders Alejandro Bedoya and Sacha Kljestan. In addition, Eric Lichaj, 22, started at left back for the second straight match after not playing in the first two, and Juan Agudelo, 18, entered in the 12th minute when Jozy Altidore strained his left hamstring.

“Everybody is needed in this type of tournament,” Bradley said. “This tournament is a tough one, in terms of the games, how fast they come, the travel, so certainly we keep talking to the players who aren’t getting the minutes, making sure we are still pushing them hard because they are all going to need to be ready.”

Not included on the preliminary 23-man roster, Bedoya, 24, replaced Benny Feilhaber (ankle injury) in the buildup to the tournament and was used in the second half of the final two group matches.

With Landon Donovan weary from a cross-country flight the morning of the Jamaica match, a trip necessitated by his twin sister’s wedding the night before, Bradley inserted Bedoya. His pace and composure on the flanks helped the U.S. team impose its game on the Reggae Boyz and hoard possession.

Kljestan, 25, entered in the second half of each group match, then started in central midfield against Jamaica, bonding with Bedoya and Dempsey as part of an improvised formation.

Instead of a flat four-man midfield, Bradley positioned Michael Bradley and Jermaine Jones in deep central roles behind Kljestan. Bedoya and Dempsey were on the outside, leaving Altidore (and then Agudelo) as the lone striker. The U.S. team typically lines up with two forwards.

“Between Clint and I, our movement off the ball was really good and you saw a couple of times he popped inside and I floated out wide,” said Kljestan, who, like Bedoya, was among the final players cut before the World Cup last year.

With Donovan (12 goals in 26 Gold Cup appearances) back in stride and Panama posing different challenges than Jamaica, Bradley seems likely to tweak the lineup again.

One position almost certain to stay the same is left back. Lichaj (pronounced LEE-high) entered the lineup after the 2-1 loss to Panama in Tampa, a move that allowed captain Carlos Bocanegra to shift into the middle and address U.S. shortcomings. Oft-injured veteran Oguchi Onyewu hasn’t played in the tournament and Tim Ream, 23, exhibited his international inexperience against the Panamanians.

U.S. notes: Altidore was scheduled to have an MRI exam Tuesday and appears unlikely to play. . . . Jones’s deflected shot that gave the United States a 1-0 lead against Jamaica has been changed to an own goal, according to CONCACAF’s Web site. . . . If Jones receives another yellow card and the Americans advance, he would miss the final.

Steven Goff is The Post’s soccer writer. His beats include D.C. United, MLS and the international game, as well as local college basketball.
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