HOUSTON – With zeroes on the scoreboard and 45 minutes left in its CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinal battle with Panama, the Us national team needed a spark - needed players to step up and give the Americans the push they needed to reach a fourth straight Gold Cup Final. Bob Bradley turned to his bench, where a superstar and a reclamation project took advantage of their chances to shine. Just a year removed from being the teams best player at the World Cup, Donovan found himself on the bench for a second straight Gold Cup match. Instead of sulking, Donovan accepted the assignment and waited for his moment to make an impact.
Two years removed from his last US national team appearance (and after having endured a tumultuous time in his roller-coaster career), Freddy Adu made his first appearance of this Gold Cup a memorable one, showing off his considerable skills as well as the maturity and confidence that came with having resurrected a career in danger of slipping away. Together, Donovan and Adu came off the bench and combined with Clint Dempsey to help the United States score the goal it needed to finally vanquish a tough Panama side that pushed the Americans to the brink. It wasnt the convincing victory the United States might have hoped for, but after so many tough Gold Cup battles with Panama through the years, it was probably too much to expect an easy victory. What the US team did do was show the patience and poise of a team that has improved throughout the Gold Cup, and the experience of a team that has played enough tournaments to know what it takes to deliver when silverware is on the line. When you come into these type of tournaments you grow along the way, US head coach Bob Bradley said. You certainly grow when you lose and look hard at certain things. Weve gotten better from start to finish here, Bradley said. Theres a good level of confidence. Its a strong group, weve been here before so when you get into these types of tournaments we know how to handle things. Bradley made the tough decision to keep Donovan on the bench against Panama in order to keep together the same lineup that played so well against Jamaica. Donovan took the decision well and despite struggling to make an impact immediately after coming on as a halftime substitute, he eventually found his rhythm and flashed his playmaking qualities by delivering the final pass on Dempseys game-winning goal.
Hes been playing non-stop and been doing it consistently at the highest level, Dempsey said of Donovan. Whether you think hes having a dip in form or not, hes a guy you always want next to you in a big game and he proved his worth tonight by being able to keep his calm in that position in the final third and be able to find that final pass. As a tournament goes on it takes every guy, said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. It takes sacrifice and itll all be worth it if we lift the trophy on Saturday. Landons been great. Hes a leader on this team. Hes a guy that we look to to put in good performances. It just so happens he did it coming off the bench. As surprising as Donovans substitute role was, Adus appearance was arguably more unexpected. A bit of a shocking roster selection before the tournament began, Adu impressed Bradley with his decision to revive his career in the Turkish second division (as well as the actual soccer he was able to play there). After a slow start in training camp, Adu eventually blossomed and showed teammates and coaches that he had not only improved as a player, but hed also matured as a man. We had him on the bench the other day with the thought that he could come in at a certain point and help and I thought the timing tonight worked, Bradley said. Its important for him. Hes earned his way, hes earned this opportunity and everybody in the team feels good about that. You could tell that when he got the chance in this camp, he appreciated it, Bradley said. When I say hes matured, it shows in the way he comes in, in the way he acts, in the way he trains. He didnt start out this camp great, Bradley said. There were days early on where regaining confidence, the speed sometimes in training, there were a lot of days where it didnt go good. He came in with a good mentality, hes matured along the way, he earned an opportunity and we all feel good about that. Adus steady improvement was enough to allow Bradley to bring him on in a scoreless Gold Cup semifinal where a spark was needed, and a spark is what Adu delivered. His passes were sharp and movements were effective, the best of which helped spring Donovan with a cross-field pass that eventually led to the game-winning goal. I just wanted to reward the coachs faith in me, Adu said. Theyve shown a lot of faith in me. Theyve been guiding me through practice and my teammates have been great. The goal as a substitute is you get on there, bring a lot of energy and make a difference, Adu said. Thats what Bob told me before I went in the game and I tried to apply that and it just worked out that way. While Donovan, Adu and Dempsey orchestrated the game-winning goal, Wednesday nights victory was the product of several outstanding performances. From the defense, which posted its third straight shutout, to midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, who delivered another energetic performance as a starter, the United States came together as a team and showed the quality of a group that has improved after some group stage struggles. A team that now stands poised to win its third Gold Cup title in six years. Ives Galarcep is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering Major League Soccer and the U.S. national team.