SEATTLE -- A red-hot striker and stingy defense will take a team far in World Cup qualifying, and the U.S. men’s national team used both ingredients to claim a 2-0 victory over Panama.
Jozy Altidore scored for the third game running, while Eddie Johnson converted a second half-breakaway. Tim Howard earned the shutout, his third in four games. But the clean sheet was due more to a total team effort as the U.S. midfield was in control for much of the night, while the back four was threatened on only rare occasions.
The victory, before 40,847 fans at CenturyLink Field, sees the U.S. move atop the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying standings. The Americans are two points ahead of Mexico and Costa Rica, who played to a 0-0 draw at the Azteca. The U.S. can create even more separation from the chasing pack in a week’s time when they host Honduras.
It was a match that saw Jurgen Klinsmann’s lineup choices turn to gold once again. With Jermaine Jones sidelined by a concussion and Graham Zusi suspended, Klinsmann was forced to draft in Geoff Cameron and Eddie Johnson. The choices proved inspired, as Cameron was an immense presence in the center of midfield alongside Michael Bradley. Johnson, meanwhile, took his goal with aplomb, one that was set up by a Cameron’s gorgeous through ball.
The U.S. carried more of the play to open the match, and nearly scored with the game less than three minutes old. A long throw-in fell to Fabian Johnson on the left side of the box, only for the midfielder to hammer his shot high. The Americans had another opportunity in the 22nd minute when Fabian Johnson’s cross was half-cleared to Michael Bradley, only for his goalbound shot to be inadvertently blocked by Clint Dempsey.
Panama then threatened twice in a three-minute span. A promising two-on-one situation fizzled out when Carlos Rodriguez slipped to the ground. The Canaleros attacked the U.S. right side again, but Matt Besler was on hand to deliver a critical block of Panamanian shot.
The U.S. was soon back on the front foot, and got into promising positions out wide on several occasions, only for the final ball to be of insufficient quality.
Altidore had what looked to be a strong claim for a penalty in the 35th minute. His deft turn on Roman Torres appeared to give him a clear path to goal, only for Torres to haul him down from behind, but it was not enough to convince referee Roberto Garcia.
It proved to be the briefest of let-offs, as the U.S. went on top just a minute later by beating Panama at its own counterattacking game. Bradley burst through the heart of midfield and played Fabian Johnson into space on the left. His low centering evaded Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, allowing Altidore to finish into an empty net at the far post.
The U.S. nearly doubled its advantage in the 42nd minute when Altidore chested DaMarcus Beasley’s pass back to Bradley, but his shot flew just over the bar.
Panama thought they had equalized just before halftime when Luis Tejada got behind the U.S. defense and slotted the ball past Howard, but he was judged to be offside, and television replays showed the call to be correct.
Panama came out in the second half showing more determination, but it was the U.S. who soon created more breathing space. Cameron’s pass put Eddie Johnson into the clear, and he delivered a composed, curling finish to put the U.S. up 2-0. The Canaleros then brought on Nelson Barahona and Rolando Blackburn soon thereafter, and the latter came close in the 61st minute with a header that went just high.
The U.S. was then content to sit back and try to hit Panama on the break. A 66th minute effort by Altidore was parried by Penedo right into Dempsey’s path, but he could only hit the top of the bar with his rebound attempt.
The U.S. was denied by the woodwork again in the 80th minute. A flowing move ended with Altidore playing Beasley through, only for the U.S. defender to clip the post with his shot. The biggest disappointment of the night was when Beasley was booked in stoppage time, and he’ll now be forced to sit out the Honduras match. But overall it was as complete a qualifying performance as the U.S. have enjoyed under Jurgen Klinsmann, and the Americans are now that much closer toward securing qualification for Brazil.
Player ratings (1-10; 10=highest):
G Tim Howard, 7 -- Rarely troubled, but was secure in his handling when called upon, especially in the air. Delivered a sharp save in stoppage time from Rolando Blackburn.
D DaMarcus Beasley, 6 -- Another secure performance on the defensive side of the ball, although he faded a bit late. He was also a threat going forward, and was unlucky not to score following a great run. His polished performance lost some of its luster by his late yellow card.
D Matt Besler, 7 -- Another excellent performance, be it with his passing or his tackling. Had a critical block of a close range shot in the 25th minute.
D Omar Gonzalez, 6 -- Delivered his share of vital tackles, and even showed some composure by passing his way out of pressure at times. Fell asleep in stoppage time, only to be bailed out by Howard.
D Brad Evans, 5 -- Panama had the most success going down his side, as he struggled to contain Alberto Quintero. Appeared to find his feet a bit more in the second half.
M Geoff Cameron, 8 -- Played his destroyer role to a tee, clogging up passing lanes and winning plenty of second balls. His pass to Eddie Johnson for the second U.S. goal was pure magic.
M Michael Bradley, 8 -- His surging run was the catalyst for Altidore’s opener, and his overall game was excellent as well. His long-range pass was part of a move that nearly ended with Beasley scoring.
M Fabian Johnson, 6 -- Failed to make the most of some promising situations early, but there was no doubting the quality of the pass that set up Altidore’s goal. Tracked back well on defense too.
M Clint Dempsey, 6 -- His near-post run created some critical space on Altidore’s goal, and took a pounding from Panama defender Felipe Baloy. Probably should have done better with his shot that hit the bar.
M Eddie Johnson, 6.5 -- Did well to shake free on the right side, but the accuracy of his crosses was lacking. He had more success with his finishing, showing plenty of composure on his 53rd minute goal.
F Jozy Altidore, 8 -- Showed once again that when he gets service, he scores. Helped out with his hold up play and defense as well. No doubt, he’s in the form of his life at the moment, and on another night, might have had an assist or two.
M Joe Corona, NR -- Came on for a three-minute cameo in place of Eddie Johnson.
M Brad Davis, NR -- Another late sub, who replaced Fabian Johnson.
M Stuart Holden, NR -- Nice touch for Klinsmann to give Holden a stoppage-time sub as he continues to work back to fitness.