WASHINGTON — By advancing to the Gold Cup semifinals by virtue of their 5-3 penalty-kick win over El Salvador on Sunday, Panama have set the stage for a rematch of their 2-1 group stage victory of the United States.
But after putting forth an exhausting effort Sunday evening in a game that spanned 120 minutes, it’s going to be a much different test for the Panamanians the second time around — both for them and an improving US.
“I’m convinced that we’re not going to face the same US that we faced in the last match,” Panama coach Julio Dely Valdés said through an interpreter after the game. “Against the US, it’s not going to be an easy game at all. It will be different and very complicated for us.”
With only seconds left in the game against El Salvador, and Panama trailing by a goal, a second matchup with the United States seemed unlikely. In desperation mode, La Marea Roja sent numbers forward, finally equalizing in somewhat controversial circumstances.
Blas Pérez’s cross was tipped up in the air by El Salvador 'keeper Miguel Montes, and Luis Tejada pounced, bundling the ball in Montes’ arms. However the assistant referee ruled — and television replays later backed him up — that Montes was in the goal and the ball had fully crossed the line when the ‘keeper made the save.
Neither side could break the deadlock in extra time, but Panama showed lethal form in penalties, converting all five spot kicks. The reward is a quick turnaround to the semifinal in Houston on Wednesday.
“The most important thing now is for our players to recover because their effort was very great,” Valdés said.
Pérez, a handful all night for El Salvador’s back line, will miss Wednesday’s match after picking up a red card after the final whistle, and before the extra time session had begun.
Regardless of the loss of Pérez — who Valdés said the team would miss greatly in the next round — it was still a proud moment for Panama to advance to the semifinals.
“We have reached something very important," Valdés said. "It’s only the second time Panama reached the semifinal, so we’re going to give it everything we’ve got to make it to the final."
It came in a game that may have well been played in El Salvador Sunday evening at RFK Stadium, with the region’s gigantic Salvadoran population coming out in droves, decorating the stadium in a sea of blue-and-white flags.
And at times it wasn’t pretty on the field, as Panama and El Salvador slugged it out. But Valdés indicated that this team has been able to progress despite not playing their typical style.
“We have gotten the results in the way we’re not used to," he said, "but I think Panama never stopped fighting and that’s how we’ve reached our goal, which is the most important thing moving forward.”