TAMPA, Fla. — Panama have brushed aside the comments made by US national team players that they consider themselves favorites against the Central Americans ahead of their Gold Cup Group C matchup at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night.
“Who cares who’s the favorite?” Panamanian forward Luis “El Matador” Tejada said on Thursday. “That they’re favorites doesn’t interest us. It’s 11-vs.-11 and they are men just like us. They’re not invincible, but we know that if we play well and we’re positioned well on the field, we can beat them.”
Both Panama and the USA enter their weekend battle with three points after victories in their respective Gold Cup openers. The Panamanians know, however, that they must improve on their performance in a 3-2 win against Guadeloupe in which they saw a 3-0 lead nearly vanish.
“We need to be concentrated,” forward Blas Pérez said after Panama’s Thursday training at the University of South Florida. “In the first game, we committed errors that cost us. We can’t commit those same errors and less so against the USA.”
Pérez, who has been rumored to be a target of MLS clubs after finishing as top scorer in the Mexican second division with León, took a dig at the USA when asked to give his opinion of what he saw from the US team against Canada and he called them “a regular team.”
“These games were complicated for them and we gave them something to speak about,” Pérez said of the US-Panama matches played between the two sides in Gold Cup history, three of which finished 2-1. “It was always difficult to beat us.”
Panamanian manager Julio Dely Valdés said he believes that in addition to the US side’s qualities, among which he cites their consistency and an ability to capitalize on errors, they also have some weak spots that Panama can exploit although he wouldn’t detail them.
For his part, Dely Valdés, a former Italian Serie A player and brother of ex-MLSer Jorge Dely Valdés, says to expect a very organized Panama side. Together with a strong back line and dangerous forwards — “in practically every game we score goals,” he said — the manager said it’s the organization and work rate of the highly skilled Panamanian players that will ultimately prove the difference.
And then there are the intangibles. Dely Valdés says his team is eager to break the stretch of Gold Cup setbacks against the USA. Although he admits it will take a near-perfect game by his squad to knock off the US national team, he said he believes his players will be more than up for the challenge.
“The reason we have good games against the USA is the extra motivation that the players have to go up against a big team,” Dely Valdés told MLSsoccer.com. “We [coaches] don’t have to do much because the motivation is already there among the players.”
That much is true. Central defender Román Torres, who is expected to take Eduardo Dasent’s spot in the back line alongside Felipe Baloy, reflected the team’s belief that they’ll finally feel they’re capable of the upset on Saturday.
“We have the tools to beat them,” Torres said. “We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing — running, tackling, staying concentrated and staying organized— and we can beat the United States.”
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