PANAMA CITY, Panama – When the clock hit 90 minutes, the Estadio Rommel Fernández was gearing up to celebrate an improbable fourth-place finish in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying, and a playoff date with New Zealand that could've booked the country's first-ever World Cup appearance.
Just minutes later, two US goals left the stadium in stunned silence.
Graham Zusi and Aron Jóhannsson both scored in second-half stoppage time as the US men's national team completed a wild comeback to claim a 3-2 win over Panama, giving them their best-ever points total in the Hexagonal and guaranteeing Mexico another shot at a place in Brazil next summer despite their 2-1 loss in Costa Rica.
Colorado Rapids striker Gabriel Torres gave Panama the start they were looking for in the first half with a well-taken goal, and Luis Tejada restored Panamanian spirits in the 84th minute after Michael Orozco Fiscal had equalized from a Brad Davis corner.
However, it wasn't to be for the Panamanians, who suffered two major defensive lapses in the dying minutes of the game and thus went home empty-handed.
With many of his starters either absent through injury or sent home with the job already done in qualifying, US head coach Jurgen Klinsmann fielded a team of World Cup hopefuls led by captain Jozy Altidore in the Hexagonal finale for both sides.
Brad Guzan started in goal, and the backline saw three changes from the side that defeated Jamaica on Friday, with Clarence Goodson and Orozco Fiscal partnering in central defense and Edgar Castillo coming in on the left. Sacha Kljestan earned his first qualifying start under Klinsmann, while Mix Diskerud and Alejandro Bedoya also got opportunities to impress.
Panama were led by Felipe Baloy, who wore the armband for head coach Julio Dely Valdés, with Torres and Blas Pérez representing MLS in Panama's attack and LA Galaxy ‘keeper Jaime Penedo locking down the home goal.
With the home crowd howling for a breakthrough in the slick conditions, the hosts got their goal after 18 minutes when a giveaway by Castillo broke open the American defense. Marcos Sánchez pounced on the left back’s mistake and picked out an unmarked Torres out at the top of the penalty area, where the Rapids Designated Player took a touch before burying his shot in the far corner to send the red-clad crowd into beer-launching hysterics.
Pérez nearly made it 2-0 from the same spot just a minute later, but beer showers arrived once again in the 23rd minute when word circulated through the crowd that Mexico had gone down 1-0 to Costa Rica, a result that would've sent Panama through. Four minutes later, when Oribe Peralta evened the score in San José, the mood was dampened briefly before chants of “Sí se puede” once again rained down on the field.
Neither team truly threatened the opposing ‘keeper for the rest of the half, although Pérez and Bedoya each exchanged half-chances in the late going.
Despite a set of second-half changes that saw Brad Davis and Jóhannsson come on for Brad Evans and Diskerud, respectively, the US equalizer came from the backline. Orozco Fiscal beat former FC Dallas defender Carlos Rodríguez to Davis’ corner and got his head on the ball to redirect it past Penedo in the 64th minute.
That didn’t seem to dampen the spirits of the home crowd, though, especially after news spread through the stands that Costa Rica had retaken the lead against Mexico, meaning one more goal would put Panama in a World Cup playoff against New Zealand.
They nearly got that goal in the 67th when Alberto Quintero, a constant thorn in the US defense’s side, broke in on goal and attempted to curl the ball around Guzan, only for the American to stick out a massive paw to deny him a famous tally.
Terrence Boyd replaced Altidore in the US lineup in the 75th minute, but it was Luis Tejada’s entrance three minutes later that really ignited the crowd. The veteran striker delivered what seemed to be the decisive blow when Guzan failed to push a low cross out of danger, leaving an easy finish, but the US weren't done yet.
Zusi arrived at the far post to nod in a cross from Davis a minute into stoppage time, stunning the crowd, before Jóhannsson delivered the dagger with a well-taken finish that secured a first-ever win for Klinsmann in a qualifier in Central America.
MLSsoccer.com Men of the Match
|Rank||Player||What We Saw|
|1||Brad Davis||Klinsmann couldn't have asked for anything for from his first sub, who delivered two inch-perfect crosses for two US goals|
|2||Alberto Quintero||Presented a threat to the US defense all night long. Will an MLS team take notice of this Gold Cup and World Cup qualifying star?|
|3||Graham Zusi||Persistence paid off for the Sporting KC man, who got the stoppage-time equalizer and was perhaps the most consistent attacker for the US|