Hernan Gomez: "I felt like crying" after Panama's maiden Copa America win

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Whatever happens in their remaining Group D matches, Panama’s national team have already made history.

Behind Blas Perez’s 40th and 41st international goals, including an 87th-minute matchwinner, Los Canaleros triumphed 2-1 over Bolivia Monday in their first-ever Copa America match.

Despite runs to the CONCACAF Gold Cup Final in 2005 and 2013, the history of this tournament may make their Group D victory at Camping World Stadium the highest profile victory in progam history.

“I felt like crying,” said manager Hernan Dario Gomez through a translator. “Everybody was hugging each other. We were feeling the country.”

And while the win was a great achievement, Gomez was quick to point out that securing a first World Cup Finals appearance remains Panama’s top priority.

After riding Perez’s heroics to victory over a Bolivian side ranked No. 82 in the FIFA World Rankings, group foes Argentina and Chile should provide a more challenging test, similar to what they could face if they made it to Russia in 2018.

“Argentina is very hard. Chile too. So now [after the win], the coach say enjoy the cup,” said Perez. “It’s very hard, but we try."

Goalkeeper Jaime Penedo isn’t looking at the next two matches as simply a learning experience.

“This win is very important if we want to do something in this group,” the former LA Galaxy man said. “Against Bolivia, Argentina, Chile, we have to start the competition with a win.”

Early on, the Panamanians looked like a team that might just be capable of shocking one of the tournament’s big boys.

Perez’s first goal came during at the end of a dominant opening 11 minutes where he, San Jose Earthquakes midfielder Alberto Quintero, Armando Cooper and Gabriel Torres all threatened.

But in other stretches, Panama’s defense struggled.

Juan Carlos Arce’s equalizer for Bolivia came after the back four failed to deal with a relatively straightforward service into the box. And Arce nearly struck a second equalizer in the 89th minute during a similar moment, only to thump his effort over the bar.

Regardless of the result, Gomez said it’s important to improve upon those shortcomings as Panama continues its maiden Copa America tournament.

“The entire country is measuring our strength and how we’re going to do this,” he said. “We are the new ones. So we’re going to have to behave with a lot of prudence, with a lot of respect.”