USA draws with Panama in Gold Cup group stage

USA's Michael Bradley (4) John Brooks (6) and Ventura Alvarado (13) block a penalty kick by Panama midfielder Gabriel Gomez during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match, Monday, July. 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Kan. (AP Photo/Colin E. Braley)

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (AP) — The sluggish play. The porous back line. The inability to finish off good chances.

None of the defects that slowed the United States during group play in the CONCACAF Gold Cup has swayed the opinion of Panama coach Hernan Gomez, who still believes the defending champions are the favorites in the knockout rounds.

“They group together well. They play together well,” Gomez said after Panama held the U.S. to a 1-1 draw in Group A on Monday night. “My personal opinion? This is the team to beat.”

Not that things have necessarily been easy in Group A.

The U.S. (2-0-1) got another stiff challenge from Los Canaleros, who took the lead on Blas Perez’s goal in the 34th minute and seemed to have the game well in hand. But after second-half subs Clint Dempsey and DeAndre Yedlin energized the Americans, Michael Bradley found the back of the net with the equalizer in the 55th minute for his 14th international goal.

“The positive you take from it is we’re unbeaten in the group,” said Dempsey, who had scored all three American goals in the tournament coming in. “Now we focus on the quarterfinals and make sure we’re playing our best.”

Already assured of first place in Group A, the U.S. improved to 30-1-3 in Gold Cup group play. But none of the three matches in this year’s Gold Cup, including a 2-1 victory over Honduras and a 1-0 win over Haiti, left coach Jurgen Klinsmann brimming with confidence as the tam heads into its quarterfinal Saturday in Baltimore.

“It’s been a very, very difficult group,” Klinsmann said, “like we always said. If you watch those teams carefully, there is a lot of quality in this group.”

Meanwhile, Panama (0-0-3) must await the outcome of the remaining group matches this week to know whether all its draws will be enough to advance.

If not, the U.S. will once again crippled Panama’s hopes.

Two years ago, the Americans beat Los Canaleros 1-0 in the Gold Cup final. Three months later, Graham Zusi and Aron Johannsson scored in second-half stoppage time to deny Panama a spot in the World Cup in Brazil — a berth that wound up going to Mexico.

For a while, it appeared that Panama might finally get some payback.

Needing a win to assure advancement, Panama pressed the attack early against the weary, sluggish Americans. Luis Tejada was called offside in the opening minutes after putting a shot in the back of the net, and goalkeeper Brad Guzan had to make a spectacular save of a corner kick that nearly turned into an own goal off Chris Wondolowski.

Panama finally broke through when Tejada slipped past Ventura Alvarado and crossed to Perez running between the center backs. The FC Dallas striker chipped it in for his 38th international goal, silencing a sellout crowd of 18,467 at Sporting Park.

It left the U.S. playing from behind for the first time this tournament.

In need of a spark, Klinsmann substituted in Yedlin and Dempsey — who had scored all three American goals in their first two victories — at the start of the second half.

Right away, their speed and creativity made a difference.

In the 55th minute, Dempsey took a pass from Gyasi Zardes while falling with his back to the goal, and poked it wide to Bedoya. He sent a perfect cross to Bradley, running from his spot in the midfield, and the captain knocked it for his second career Gold Cup goal.

Panama had a good chance to regain the lead in the 75th minute, but Guzan laid out to slap away a shot by Miguel Camargo, who had entered as a second-half substitute.

The U.S. had a couple of its own chances down the stretch, but Klinsmann’s team appeared content with a draw. It was the third game in seven days for the Americans, and a physical one as evidenced by the bloody face of Kyle Beckerman in the closing minutes.

“I think we’re just getting our feet in the tournament,” Klinsmann said. “The tournament starts now, the knockout stage. It’s been a tough road but now it’s getting serious stuff.”

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