Clint Dempsey's goal sends U.S. to Gold Cup final
Clint Dempsey's third goal of the tournament proved to be a charm for the U.S. on Wednesday, lifting the Americans to a 1-0 victory over Panama in a Gold Cup semifinal at a sold-out Reliant Stadium in Houston.
The win sends the U.S. into Saturday's final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where it will meet the winner of Wednesday's second semifinal between unbeaten Mexico and Honduras. The U.S. and Mexico have combined to win nine of the previous 10 Gold Cups with the winner of this year's tournament qualifying for the 2013 Confederations Cup, held a year before the next World Cup in Brazil
Panama scored twice in the first half to beat the U.S. in group play, the only time in 10 Gold Cup appearances that the U.S. has lost in the first round. But the U.S. hasn't given up a goal since that match and Wednesday's rematch was another defensive struggle.
The only goal didn't come until the 77th minute and two players who weren't even in the starting lineup figured heavily in setting it up.
Freddy Adu, who came on the 66th minute, started things when his pass from behind the midfield stripe found Landon Donovan streaking up the right side. Donovan, who spent the first half on the bench, settled the ball before dribbling to the edge of the penalty area. From there he slipped a low pass past three defenders to Dempsey, whose sliding goal slipped just inside the far post.
"When the opportunity comes, you've got to do whatever it takes to help the team," said Adu, a former wunderkind who is rebuilding his career with the national team at 22. "Today I was told to come in, bring energy and make a difference. And I tried to do that.
"It was amazing. I haven't been part of the team for over three years now. So to get a chance just to be around the guys, to be around the national team, I was really thankful for the opportunity. Once you're here, you have to work hard. And when you get your chance, you have to make a difference. You have to reward your coach's faith in you."
While the U.S. played the same kind of ball-control game it used in its quarterfinal win over Jamaica -- in this case, in the hope of wearing down a Panama team that went 120 minutes in its quarterfinal win over El Salvador just three days earlier -- the Panamanians seemed content to lay back and rarely challenged on the offensive end until late in the match.
Panama's best -- and really only -- scoring chance in the first 70 minutes came early in the second half when striker Alberto Quintero, who had gotten behind American defender Carlos Bocanegra, had a perfect crossing pass go through his legs just in front of an open net.
The U.S., which has had trouble finishing all tournament, just missed on two great chances in a scoreless first half.
In the 17th minute, Dempsey nodded a ball toward the center of the goal for Juan Agudelo but Panama keeper Jaime Penedo got there just ahead of the American striker. And in the 25th minute, a diving header from Agudelo off a Steve Cherundolo cross took a big bounce, then ricocheted off the crossbar at the near post.
Agudelo was in the startling lineup in place of Jozy Altidore, who had two goals in group play before going down with a strained hamstring in the 12th minute against Jamaica. And the inexperienced teenager became the focus of some physical marking from Panama -- especially defender Felipe Baloy -- before being subbed out for Adu midway through the second half.
Donovan came on for Sacha Kljestan at halftime.
-- Kevin Baxter
Photo: United States players celebrate a goal with teammate Clint Dempsey against Panama during their Gold Cup soccer match at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas on Wednesday. Credit: Larry W. Smith / EPA