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U.S. Makes Panama Pay the Penalty

Times Staff Writer

Joseph “Sepp” Blatter, president of FIFA and international soccer’s most powerful figure, skipped the postgame news conference Sunday evening.

It wasn’t because he was bored stiff and wanted to get as far away from Giants Stadium as fast as possible. It was because he had a flight to catch. At least that was the excuse given.

And who could blame Blatter? The United States, truth be told, made hard work of winning its third Gold Cup, earning a 3-1 victory over Panama on penalty kicks after 120 scoreless and not necessarily absorbing minutes.

When the game came down to penalties, the Central Americans’ resolve finally snapped.

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Panama, ranked 83rd in the world, just behind Estonia and just ahead of Canada, was as good or better than the sixth-ranked U.S. for much of the match.

In fact, but for some smart saves by goalkeeper Kasey Keller and a shot by Jorge Dely Valdes that caromed off the crossbar, the Canaleros could well have walked off with the championship in regulation, or at least in overtime.

Instead, they finished as runners-up, their finest accomplishment on a soccer field.

Panama had defeated South Africa on penalty kicks in the quarterfinals of the 12-nation tournament, but this time its spot kicks let it down.

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Keller saved well from striker Luis Tejada, the player of the tournament. Dely Valdes banged his effort off the crossbar. Gabriel Gomez managed to beat Keller, but Alberto Blanco booted his shot over the net.

Panama was one for four from 12 yards, much to the dismay of its many fans in the crowd on an 88-degree afternoon.

For the U.S., Santino Quaranta scored into the lower left corner. Chris Armas sent his shot into the arms of Jaime Penedo, who was selected player of the game. Landon Donovan scored with authority and Brad Davis followed suit.

By making three of four kicks, the Americans became champions. It was the third title for the U.S., which won in 1991 and 2002.

Did it mean anything?

“I’m happy, man,” Donovan said. “We said before the game, you don’t get many chances to win anything as professionals and you have to take advantage of it. It could be the last time I ever win anything. I hope not, but you never know.”

Did the U.S. deserve to win?

Assistant Glenn “Mooch” Myernick, filling in for suspended Coach Bruce Arena, said it had not been pretty.

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“We had a number of guys have poor games today,” Myernick said. “Their play was sloppy. I think you saw the effect of a very long tournament and a hot day and some very simple plays going astray on a regular basis. It was very difficult to tell what we were trying to do.”

It was a game of missed chances at both ends, with a lot of untidy and not particularly creative play in between.

It began in controversy when Panamanian defender Luis Moreno, initially suspended for the final because of yellow cards picked up in the semifinal, was reinstated by CONCACAF on Sunday morning after officials viewed a tape and saw that he had not committed a foul.

The U.S filed a protest but in the end it became academic.

More worthy of note were the series of excellent saves made by Penedo, particularly on a short-range header by Clint Dempsey and a shot by DaMarcus Beasley near the end of the first half.

At the other end, Keller was just as active, with one save especially dramatic. It came six minutes into overtime when he had to dive low to his right to make a one-handed stop on a shot by Dely Valdes from inside the box. The ball rolled free but no Panamanian player was there to finish the move.

In the 52nd minute, Keller had batted away a bicycle kick by Tejada, and in the 75th Dely Valdes’ shot struck the crossbar after Panama again had penetrated the defense.


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