A winter friendly against Panama is not the typical occasion to monitor the state of the U.S. men’s national soccer team. However, with negative vibes swirling around the program during this usual docile period, the Americans needed a good start, a sound finish and, most of all, a victory Sunday in Carson, Calif., to help ease growing anxiety.
They accomplished all aims, thanks to goals by World Cup veterans 10 minutes apart in the first half.
Michael Bradley scored directly off a corner kick — a “gol olimpio,” in international soccer parlance —, and Clint Dempsey finished a breakaway during the 2-0 triumph before 20,271 at StubHub Center.
Since defeating Ghana in their World Cup opener last summer, the Americans had managed one victory and three draws in nine matches. Most were inconsequential affairs, but amid a five-game winless streak and Jurgen Klinsmann’s recent criticism of players’ offseason training mentality, the need for a positive result had been heightened.
The outcome was never in much doubt. And against Panama, which has beaten the Americans once in 15 meetings, it never should be in much doubt at home.
Bradley got it started in the 27th minute, placing a wondrous corner kick into the far side-netting. Without an angle to shoot and a goalkeeper plucking high balls, scoring on such a set piece is an oddity. But The Toronto FC midfielder put the perfect spin and loft on the ball to embarrass Jaime Penedo, the Los Angeles Galaxy keeper playing in his MLS home stadium.
The origin of “gol olimpico”? In 1924, three months after FIFA allowed goals directly from a corner kick, Argentina’s Cesareo Onzari accomplished the feat in a friendly against Uruguay. Because Argentina had just won the Olympic gold medal, the strike was named for the champions.
The second U.S. goal was more conventional: Gyasi Zardes, a rising star with the Galaxy, made an assertive run in midfield and threaded a through ball to Dempsey for a one-on-one finish past Penedo. The Seattle Sounders attacker increased his international scoring total to 40, second in U.S. men’s history behind Landon Donovan’s 57.
The Americans then avoided conceding late goals — a bad habit afflicting them since last summer in Brazil.
With Tim Howard on U.S. hiatus, Brad Guzan in action for Aston Villa and D.C. United’s Bill Hamid recovering from a shoulder injury, Real Salt Lake’s Nick Rimando and Chicago’s Sean Johnson split the goalkeeping chores.
After implementing a three-man backline in a 3-2 defeat at Chile 11 days earlier, Klinsmann returned to a four-man alignment. New England’s Jermaine Jones, the solo center back against Chile, was joined by Kansas City’s Matt Besler. Tottenham Hotspur’s DeAndre Yedlin and Orlando City’s Brek Shea, a midfielder, were on the corners.
United defender Steve Birnbaum, who made his U.S. debut against Chile, was ruled out with a knee ailment. In Washington, United Coach Ben Olsen said the 2014 MLS rookie of the year finalist suffered a minor MCL injury and estimated Birnbaum’s return within two weeks.
United midfielder Perry Kitchen received his first cap, entering for Mix Diskerud in the 72nd minute. FC Dallas defender Matt Hedges also debuted.
The Americans will return to action for friendlies in late March at Denmark and Switzerland. Both fall inside a FIFA match period, freeing players from club obligations. If eligibility issues are cleared up, Arsenal’s Gedion Zelalem, 18, might receive his first call-up.