SEATTLE – The US men’s national team entered its busy summer stretch with plenty of questions about their defense, but came up with answers once again on Tuesday.
The Americans picked up their latest clean sheet in World Cup qualifying as they defeated Panama 2-0 in front of a rowdy pro-US crowd at CenturyLink Field. The defense’s impressive outing in the dominant victory gave the US their second shutout in the last three qualifiers – having only conceded once in that span – signs that the largely inexperienced backline is maturing right before the team's very eyes.
“It’s not easy, there’s been some bumps and bruises, there’s been some yelling and some curse words back there but that’s how you learn,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “I’ve played the game a long time and I’ve been on both ends of it. I’ve been the young guy and I’m the old guy now and I’ve seen it, that’s how you grow.
“You grow from mistakes and getting a talking to and adjusting and coming back and doing better and tonight was really good. We caught them offside a few times which, to me as a goalkeeper, tells that our line is really tight and we’re dictating the line, so that’s always good.”
The players comprising the US back four – Brad Evans, Omar Gonzalez, Matt Besler and DaMarcus Beasley – are all still developing a chemistry with one another, but their collective outing against Panama showed just how much progress is being made in that regard.
Gonzalez and Besler went largely untested and Beasley helped close down the left side of the field so well that he was able to aggressively push forward and join the attack. Evans was the player who struggled the most out of the four defenders, with Panamanian midfielder Alberto Quintero using his pace to test the makeshift right back in the first half, but even that was not enough for Panama to create a real quality chance on goal until late.
“They’re growing into that role, they fine-tune things, more playing time means a better understanding developed,” said USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “But you don’t know what the next game will bring you. Question marks will be always there, it’s just normal. Important is that on this road towards Brazil we get the job done and we get the points and qualify and then we can start another period to plan.”
Though the defense delivered the type of strong showing that will help instill confidence in US fans, they also benefited from the play of Geoff Cameron. The versatile Cameron, who has played mostly as a defender under Klinsmann and at English club side Stoke City, started alongside Michael Bradley in central midfield and provided the type of defensive bite that was needed with usual starter Jermaine Jones out due to a concussion.
Cameron, who also delivered a sublime assist on Eddie Johnson’s second-half insurance goal, thwarted several Panama attacks, using his lanky body and ability to read the game to prevent the visitors from penetrating the US defense too often.
“The amount of plays he broke up, where he stuck his long leg in there and got a toe on the ball and went the other way, there was probably five, six, seven of those, which is key,” said Howard. “We did it without giving away fouls, I think that was a key tonight, and he was very, very calm in there, which helped kind of dictate the tempo.”
The US players admitted after the win that there is still work to be done and that chemistry is still improving. But once again, the US defense showed that they are headed in the right direction, something that few could have predicted as recently as a month ago and a source of motivation for the unit going forward.
“Tonight, we got a shutout,” said Gonzalez. “That's an amazing step forward for us. I think each game, the confidence gets better. I think everyone gets more comfortable with each other. For most of the night, I thought that we did pretty well. There was that chance at the end, but that's why you have Tim Howard to make those saves in case they do get behind.
“On the night, everything was really impressive. These were good building blocks to go from. Hopefully, we go to Salt Lake and put together another performance."
Franco Panizo covers the New York Red Bulls for MLSsoccer.com. He can be reached by e-mail at Franco8813@gmail.com.