Gold Cup: With quarterfinal berth already clinched, USMNT not focused on revenge-minded Panama

KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The last time the United States met Panama in CONCACAF competition, Graham Zusi left the Central American nation's' players and supporters gutted and made himself a soccer saint in Mexico.

And as the two sides prepare for Monday's Group A finale in Gold Cup play (9:30 pm ET; FoxSports 1 | UniMas | UDN | Sportsnet World | Sportsnet 360), Zusi doesn't figure the Panamanians have forgotten the night of Oct. 15, 2013, at Estadio Rommel Fernandez, when his headed equalizer – in the Americans' eventual 3-2 win – knocked Panama out of a playoff spot for the 2014 World Cup.

“I think that'll always be in the back of their head,” Zusi – who has scored two of his three international goals against Panama – told reporters on Sunday. “I think every game in this tournament's going to be a battle, and I don't expect this one will be any different. They're seeking, I guess, a little bit of revenge.

“I don't think they'll take it personally on me, but I think they'll take it personally against the US, yes.”

Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya also remembers that match from the winners' perspective.

“Yeah, that was a crazy game,” he said. “I'm sure some of our fans wanted us to lose that game for other reasons, but as a team, whenever you get a chance to represent your country, you want to do it well. And I know for other guys that were involved in that game, it was kind of our chance to also make an impact and show Juergen [Klinsmann] what we have before going to the World Cup.”

That 2013 heartbreak isn't the only legitimate grudge Panama could take into Monday's match at Sporting Park, where Zusi plays his home matches with Sporting Kansas City. The US have knocked Panama out of the last five Gold Cups, including wins in the 2005 and 2013 title matches.

Even in 2011, when Panama pulled off their only victory over the US in a group-stage match, the Americans avenged that defeat with a 1-0 win in the semifinals.

As payback opportunities go, though, there's not a whole lot of real damage Panama can do on Monday, so long as the US can avoid any injuries in the final group match.

The Yanks have already clinched a spot in the knockout round by winning their first two matches, while Panama – 2013's surprise runners-up – are in second place with two points and will have to keep an eye on the early game between Haiti and Honduras.

“It's a big game for them,” US captain Michael Bradley said on Sunday. “Obviously, they will know what they need to do, based on what happens in the first game. But again, it's a good team. It's a team we know well, and we expect them to come out with a lot of emotion, with a lot of commitment to doing whatever they need to do to get themselves into the next round.”

The US, Bradley said, have their own work to do on Monday as well. Though they can do it from a place of already knowing they'll move on to the quarters, which eases the burden.

“We can be sharper. The way that we handle the game can be better,” he said. “Again, we also have to give credit in certain moments to the other teams. They are committed to being organized, committed to being hard to play against, committed to trying to break things up. In some cases they do a good job, and obviously if that comes together on certain days where we're not quite as sharp as we normally are, then it means it can be a little closer than everybody maybe thinks it should be.

“But we don't let ourselves get too caught up with that. You get into these tournaments, it's still about taking your points, and the ability to win games even when you don't play perfectly is also a very important quality. I think in those areas we've done very well.”

Steve Brisendine covers Sporting Kansas City for MLSsoccer.com.