CHICAGO – The venue is different and most of the players won’t be the same, but Sunday’s Gold Cup final holds an element of déjà vu for Panama manager Julio Dely Valdes.
A little more than eight years ago, Dely Valdes paced the sideline at Giants Stadium as his upstart Panamanian side held the US national team to a scoreless draw through 120 minutes. Penalties, the game’s arbitrator of last resort, would decide the match and the champion of CONCACAF.
They weren’t kind to Los Canaleros, as Luis Tejeda’s tame effort was saved by Kasey Keller, who will be on the USMNT bench as the team’s goalkeeper coach Sunday, Julio’s twin brother, Jorge, now a Panama assistant, slammed his attempt off the underside of the crossbar and Alberto Blanco skied his effort into the stands.
The US, meanwhile, converted three of four of their spot kicks, with a young Brad Davis burying the title-sealing attempt to break Panamanian hearts and deliver another piece of silverware to the American trophy case.
And although he may have taken a break from leading his national team in the years since that match, there’s no doubt Dely Valdes remembers it well, a memory Panama has the opportunity to expunge Sunday at Soldier Field in yet another Gold Cup final (4 pm ET, Fox, UniMas, Univision Deportes).
“I’m not sure if it’s revenge,” Dely Valdes said after a long pause. “But for those of us that are here – for all of us, not just my brother, including our country who is waiting for this game tomorrow – it is a great opportunity to be in a final. It’s not usual for anyone to be in one, so it’s definitely an opportunity for us to change history.”
In addition to Keller, Landon Donovan, who converted his penalty in the shootout, and DaMarcus Beasley were members of that title-winning US squad. Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo was in goal that day, only able to save Chris Armas’ PK, while Gabriel Gomez manned the midfield.
All four figure to play key roles on Sunday, and while there are understandably no regrets on the American side, Penedo only has one from a game that saw the Panamanians just a few breaks away from capturing a title.
“To me the 2005 final was very beautiful,” he said. “It was eight years ago, but if we could repeat it again, the only thing I would change is for us to win in penalties. Tomorrow’s game will be a good one. We have to enjoy it with order and responsibility.”
This time around, though, Dely Valdes won’t stand face to face with his US counterpart on the sideline.
Jurgen Klinsmann is suspended for the match, but Beasley and Donovan will be in the American XI, and both know from experience that Panama won’t be pushovers as they pursue an element of retribution for that 2005 defeat.
“Scoreless and PKs, that’s really it,” Beasley said of that match. I remember it was very hot that day. Panama has always given us a tough time.”
“They were very good in that tournament and deserved to be there,” Donovan added. “There’s a lot of similarities that can be drawn between this team [and the one that made it to the 205 final]. …It could look similar. We’re prepared to play 90 minutes, 120, penalties. We’re prepared to do what we need to do to lift the trophy.”
Of course, the same applies to the Panamanians, who are still looking for an international trophy outside a UNCAF Nations Cup victory in 2009 after making steady progress over the past decade.
They’re still seeking their first World Cup appearance as well, and there’s no doubt a victory against the US on Sunday would be the biggest accomplishment in Panama’s history – and perhaps even reenergize a Hexagonal campaign that stalled considerably in June.
"We are not favorites, but we feel very confident,” Peneda said. I have been blessed to be in my second final, and I have a lot of [faith] in my teammates that we can lift the cup.”