United States 1, Panama 1
The U.S. national soccer team pulled off another last-minute miracle Wednesday night and, as a result, took another small step closer to a berth in the final stage of qualifying for the 2006 World Cup.
Less than a minute from a historic defeat at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, Cobi Jones slotted a short shot past goalkeeper Donaldo Gonzalez during injury time to give the Americans a 1-1 tie with Panama. Approximately 12,000 on a rainy night were on the verge of erupting in celebration, but fell hauntingly silent when Jones, a second-half substitute, put away Landon Donovan's pass deep in the penalty area.
"I just tried to stay on-side," Jones said of the tying goal. "When it came to me, my thought was just to slide it into the far post. . . . We're a team that's never going to quit."
After a promising first half, the Americans completely lost their rhythm and were outplayed by unheralded Panama in the second half. The Panamanians, who never have qualified for a World Cup and are ranked 106th in the world, went ahead in the 70th minute when Ricardo Phillips broke free on the right and had his low bid blocked by goalkeeper Kasey Keller. Phillips recovered the rebound and, from a sharp angle, sent the ball between a pair of retreating U.S. defenders to the far post, where Roberto Brown tapped it into an open net.
Donovan tested Gonzalez with a high attempt a few minutes later and the U.S. team, ranked No. 10 by FIFA, intensified its slumbering attack, drawing several corner kicks. And just like last month, when Brian Ching rescued them with a last-minute equalizer at Jamaica, the Americans provided some last-gasp drama. This time, Donovan started what Jones finished.
The ball "bounced straight down across the goal," Donovan said. "My eyes got big. Right as I went to shoot it, it hit a little puddle and stopped. It kind of came off the end of my foot and went to Cobi. Things happen for a reason."
The tie left the United States with a 1-0-2 record at the midway point of this semifinal round -- good standing for a team that very easily could have two losses. Panama is 1-1-1.
U.S. Coach Bruce Arena continued to plumb his team's depth, making five changes in the starting lineup from Saturday's 2-0 victory over El Salvador. Eddie Pope joined Carlos Bocanegra in central defense after sitting out last weekend with a thigh injury; Greg Vanney and Frankie Hejduk returned as outside backs; Clint Mathis entered in the midfield; and Keller was in goal after Tim Howard returned to Manchester United duties this week.
It didn't take long for the U.S. team to exert control and dominate possession. Panama, energized by little playmaker Julio Medina, was a counterattacking threat, but the American defense caught it offside repeatedly. Long-distance efforts by Medina and Engie Mitre were the only serious threats to Keller.
Despite the draw, Arena didn't sound too pleased afterward.
"Their forwards probably won the battle," the coach said. "The big part of the game was our inability to take advantage of our control we had in the first half. In the second half, they gave us a lot of trouble but we wore them down at the end."
The Americans were equally dangerous on set pieces as they were in the run of play. Vanney sent a free kick through the six-yard box and fractionally wide of the far post and Mathis chipped a dead ball over the defense to Bocanegra for a weak redirection at Gonzalez.
Their best opportunity of the half came in the 26th minute, when Ching sent a diagonal pass to the charging Mathis, whose one-on-one bid was knocked aside by Gonzalez.
Medina was at it again early in the second half, charging Panama's attack and sparking several flurries. His shot from the top of the box skipped a few feet wide of the right post in the 48th minute. Phillips, who entered late in the first half, became a factor on the right wing as Panama's confidence with the ball grew and grew. Phillips's dazzling moves created a 20-yard blast that streaked just beyond the right post in the 66th minute.
The next time the Americans see Panama will be at Washington's RFK Stadium on Oct. 13. Between now and then, however, they will have to play El Salvador in San Salvador on Oct. 9, their final road game during this four-team group.
Of all the places that the United States has ventured for World Cup qualifiers, this venue might've been the most primitive. It looked like a decrepit municipal stadium built 50 years ago, nestled between a horse track and the Roberto Duran Gymnasium and lacking a scoreboard. Before being renamed for Fernandez, a former star player who was killed in an auto accident in 1993, it was called the "national stadium."
Baseball is more popular than soccer in Panama -- Hall of Famer Rod Carew and Yankees reliever Mariano Rivera are among the most famous exports -- but with the national soccer team coming off a 2-1 upset at Jamaica last weekend and the United States, a World Cup quarterfinalist two years ago, visiting for the first time ever, this match received extensive pregame coverage in the newspapers and on local television.
The headline in La Prensa proclaimed, "Con Respeto Pero Sin Miedo" -- With Respect but Without Fear. El Panama America splashed "Respeto en Casa!" (Respect in the House) and devoted four pages of World Cup qualifying previews from the North and Central America and Caribbean region (CONCACAF).
On Tuesday night, a local radio station, 97.1 FM Caliente, parked speakers the size of a convenience store across bustling Avenida Balboa from the U.S. team hotel on the edge of Panama Bay. The amplified music and deejays shook the windows to the very top of the high-rise building, typical disruptions before U.S. road qualifiers. Crowds of fans began to gather, mostly out of curiosity, but before long, the police arrived and shut down the party.
The rest of the evening was peaceful for the U.S. team, which had been unable to practice because of heavy rain (the well-equipped hotel gym was a decent alternative).
Because this match was being played on a weeknight and another rainstorm began late in the afternoon, organizers weren't expecting to fill the 20,000-seat stadium. But fans began gathering several hours before kickoff, with almost everyone dressed in red.
For complete World Cup qualifying results, see D8.