On Sunday night in Washington, D.C., Clint Dempsey exorcised his demons with a goal in the 80th minute.
Three days later on a hot night in Houston, he did the same to the ghosts that were troubling Landon Donovan.
After an hour and a quarter of brutal, nervous play from an American side facing a Panama team that was gaining confidence with each passing minute, Dempsey stuck out his left foot, met an on-the-ground far post cross from Donovan — the type of ball we've seen so often from the Stars and Stripes star — and navigated it into the net for the match's only tally.
Dempsey popped up, took two jubilant steps toward the corner flag, and reconsidered. He wheeled and pointed at Donovan while screaming, "That was you. That was you." (Or something to that effect. Maybe "That is yours." Probably, too, with more profanities.)
Donovan jumped into his teammate's arms as Alejandro Bedoya, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley joined the group hug. Dempsey accepted the group, but looked out into the crowd, gestured repeatedly at the top of the LA Galaxy star's head. He continued his praise of the United States' best facilitator who, by the way, started the match (and the quarterfinal as well) on the bench.
"[Donovan’s] been playing non-stop for a long time and he’s a top quality player," said Dempsey in the postgame press conference. "He’s a guy you want next to you in a game and he proved his worth by being able to keep his calm and find that final pass. That’s why I wanted to go celebrate with him, because of his work to find me and help us get to the final."
On Wednesday night, Dempsey — obviously and publicly — announced Donovan's return. And he wasn't wrong to do so. The Americans’ all-time leading soccer will start in the Gold Cup final.
Bob Bradley, however, was not wrong to keep Donovan on the bench to start Wednesday’s match. The coach ran out same 11 men that dismantled Jamaica in the quarterfinal. They played well in DC, minimizing the mistakes that had plagued the team throughout the group stage, and put together the most complete effort of the tournament. Keeping that group together at the beginning of the Panama match was the logical choice.
"We talked as a team and felt that we had a good game against Jamaica and it made sense to build on that," the US manager said after the match. "In that situation, the team felt good about what took place and that this was a good move. Donovan had a great attitude about it and wanted to do what’s best for the team. It’s a great thing to know when he comes on the field he can make special play."
Alejandro Bedoya needed to be out there. He was an early key against the Reggae Boyz, and the US thrive on his energy to avoid slow starts. He makes small plays, like a burst of speed in the 8th minute to pressure a Panamanian defender that resulted in a pass back to the goalie, who proceeded to boot out of bounds as Juan Agudelo bore down. A little moment like that helps the US stave off complacency.
Sacha Kljestan was the other obvious player to take off in favor of Donovan, and he did come out halftime. But anyone who claims they knew Kljestan would struggle against Panama is lying. They were almost certainly praising his performance in the nation's capital. The Californian is as maddeningly inconsistent as he is wonderfully gifted. He didn't play well in the first 45 minutes on the Reliant Stadium field, but that doesn't mean Bradley was wrong to hand the start to a man who played so well just three days ago.
But with the score 0-0 at halftime, Bradley needed to make a change. He looked down his bench and oh hey, one of his two best players was wearing his red Nike jersey, ready to enter into the game.
Donovan, a consummate professional, will say the right things about missing the first half, but surely he was some combination of angry, embarrassed and inspired. He had to get on the field to help reclaim his spot on the team.
The Americans needed one break. And it needed to come before a breakdown led to a Panama goal. Bradley manipulated the 11 on the field and it finally came on the break from Freddy Adu (who demonstrated the exact reason Bradley picked him) to Donovan to Dempsey.
As the ball reached the twine, Dempsey bounced to his feet. He was ready to celebrate, ready to tell Donovan it was his goal and his place in the starting line up. The Galaxy star ran toward the goalscorer, had the presence of mind to check the offside flag, then continued his beeline to his friend, teammate, and, on one night in Texas, personal exorcist.