With one more win, either the United States or Panama will find themselves contesting the Gold Cup final in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday. But first, the duo meet on Wednesday at Houston's Reliant Field for a rematch of the second Group C game.
The Central American side shocked the Americans 2-1 in their first meeting on June 11, handing Bob Bradley's side the country's first-ever loss before the knockout round of the regional championship.
The US are eager to make amends for the slip up, pure and simple. They played their best match of the tournament last Sunday in a 2-0 quarterfinal win over Jamaica in a game was not as close as the score line indicated. Panama, on the other hand, eked out a victory over El Salvador in the second game at RFK Stadium on Sunday, and needed a stoppage-time goal and penalty kicks to defeat La Selecta.
For one team, the Rose Bowl awaits. For the other, it's a long trip home and a two-year wait for another chance at Gold Cup glory.
After the quarterfinal victory, the US players paid lip service to the thought that they didn't care about their semifinal opponent. But while getting to the final is the goal, you better believe they relish the chance to knock Panama out along the way.
Two of the stars of the Jamaica game were midfielders Sacha Kljestan and Clint Dempsey, and have proven they should start together in the semifinal. The return of a rested Landon Donovan and the strong recent play of Alejandro Bedoya, however, could make for some question marks about the starting lineup.
"I think I was able to find those [passing] gaps," Kljestan said after the quarterfinal victory. "Clint was able to find those gaps tonight. We're a good passing team when we want to be."
If Kljestan and Dempsey are indeed the offensive catalysts again, they'll likely need to facilitate the attack without Jozy Altidore. The Americans' top scoring threat went down with a hamstring injury in the early going against the Reggae Boyz, and it's likely that New York Red Bulls teenager Juan Agudelo will get the start over San Jose's Chris Wondolowski as the team's lone man up top.
But Dempsey, Kljestan and Donovan should provide Agudelo with enough support, and don't forget the sporadic offense chops of Michael Bradley or even Jermaine Jones, who scored his first career US goal to kickstart the win over Jamaica.
Tim Howard will keep the US defensive corps sharp, with the usual suspects manning the back line: Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra and youngster Eric Lichaj, who played well enough against Jamaica to safely shift Bocanegra into the middle and leave New York's Tim Ream as an option off the bench.
But if the Americans hog the ball the way they did against Jamaica — they controlled nearly 65 percent of the possession and completed 87 percent of their passes — then perhaps the US defense won't have much to do, and that's welcome news.
"Teams have sat back on us and defensively, it's easy to go to sleep when you have so much of the ball," Howard said after the match against Jamaica. "My reminders to them were just that: We've got to talk and communicate and take care of the ball. We've got to be pessimistic in thinking that the next ball is going to break down, and how do we deal with that?"
The Central American side played their Super Bowl against El Salvador on Sunday. They looked done after Rodolfo Zelaya's 78th-minute goal, but fought back in front of an exceedingly hostile crowd and drew even on Luis Tejada's injury-time tally. During the scrum after the controversial goal, captain Blas Pérez was sent off (along with El Salvador's Luis Anaya), meaning he'll have to watch the semifinal from the stands.
After the defeat of La Selecta and the group stage win over the Americans, manager Julio Dely Valdés is hopeful lightning strikes for a third time within an 11-day span. The Panamanians have the advantage of knowing they can compete with — and beat — the US. But how much energy will they have after enduring 120 physically draining minutes and emotionally exhausting penalty kicks afterward?
Dely Valdés doesn't have a deep bench, so he will rely primarily on his starters from Sunday night's affair. It won't be an easy match, although a large part of the crowd could be rooting against the home team (don't forget that Mexico play Honduras in the nightcap). If Panama can tally a quick goal as they did in Tampa Bay, they may be able to hold off the US. Stranger things have happened.
United States: Clint Dempsey
The Fulham midfielder and Texas native's goal to ice the quarterfinal victory was cathartic, as his intense, joyous celebration demonstrated.
"[It showed] the fact that I keep going, that I keep picking myself up after a bad situation happens," he said. "I'll rise above it."
He'll rise once more on the Houston field that's not far from his childhood home.
Panama: Luis Tejada
If the Panamanians score, it's going to come through the man who put them up the first time these two teams met. He has played a part in five of the country's tallies during the Gold Cup, and will have to do it again along with Luis Rentería, who will play for the absent Pérez.
United States Projected Starting Lineup
Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Clarence Goodson, Carlos Bocanegra, Eric Lichaj, Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Sacha Kljestan, Clint Dempsey, Juan Agudelo
Panama Projected Starting Lineup
Jaime Penedo; Felipe Baloy, Luis Henríquez, Román Torres, Adolfo Machado, Gabriel Gómez, Nelson Barahona, Amilcar Henríquez, Armando Cooper, Luis Tejada, Luis Rentería