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February 8, 2015
Galaxy attacker makes his mark as U.S. tops Panama

By Scott French
LA Soccer News Contributing Editor

CARSON, Calif. - The U.S. national team's 2-0 triumph Sunday afternoon over Panama might not silence the doubts some have about the program's direction under Jurgen Klinsmann, but it certainly felt good after some five months without a victory while unveiling, perhaps, a star for the future.

Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey scored fine first-half goals, the besieged-and-transitioning backline looked solid following some early jitters, and Gyasi Zardes made a real imprint on his home field, dominating the right flank while keenly setting up Dempsey's strike to win U.S. Soccer's Man of the Match honors.

The Yanks managed just six shots, two after the break, but increasingly dictated terms as Bradley, playing in a holding-midfield position in a 4-2-3-1 formation, took charge from the start and never let up.

If Bradley was the best player on the field at StubHub Center, and he was, then Zardes - playing just a few miles from where he grew up, with his wife, son and parents in the stands - was second-best, and his performance echoed most loudly, given what it means going forward.

“[Zardes has] shown that, without a doubt, he's a guy that has to be in this group going forward,” Bradley said. “He's a great kid, great attitude, he comes everyday ready to listen, ready to learn, and he's good to play with. He sees things. He has a good feel for the game.

“I think we have to be careful not to put too much pressure on him, because he's still a young kid and he's relatively inexperienced, but he has the right mentality. He's shown that he, going forward, deserves to be here.”

The 23-year-old attacker, who enjoyed a breakthrough season with the Galaxy last year, made his mark in the 37th minute, when he plucked a ball out of the air in midfield, cut inside to escape several Panama defenders and find space, surged forward through vast open territory, then fed Dempsey with a perfectly weighted pass that split two defenders en route to the box.

Dempsey needed a touch or two to beat Panama goalkeeper Jaime Penedo, Zardes' Galaxy teammate, and another to push the ball into the net.

“Gyasi did a good job of just running at the defense,” Dempsey said. “I was trying to create space for him by running in the opposite direction and try to make a run into space and see if he could find me. Credit to him, he got his head up and played a perfect ball.”

Said Klinsmann: “The assist to Clint was just perfect, perfect timing. So that shows that he has something special.”

Bradley scored the first goal in the 27th minute, curling a corner kick from the left into the upper-right corner. That was the plan.

“He kind of shot it a little bit higher than we wanted to do,” Klinsmann said. “We wanted to hit those balls right on the first post, because Penedo is not the tallest. We have three guys standing there [to cause chaos] - Brek Shea, Gyasi and Jozy Altidore - it's kind of a little but tricky. But then he hits the ball a little bit higher, and it goes in second post. He still needs to train those to hit them right, right in front of the goal there. It's not that easy to bring it right into position.”

Bradley nearly scored from the same spot with a near-post corner, just five minutes before scoring. Penedo did well to parry it out of danger. Nobody had a chance to stop the second one.

Also impressive: Former UC Irvine star Miguel Ibarra, who overcame early nerves in a decent first start on the left flank; and Jermaine Jones, just four games into his transition from central midfielder to center back, who looked far more comfortable on the backline, aided by a return to a four-man unit.

What felt best was winning, even if the result didn't really matter. The U.S. had captured just one of their previous nine games - an early-September friendly against the Czech Republic - and brought a five-game winless streak into the clash.

“It's important to get back to winning, to get that winning mentality back,” Bradley said. “So we talked all week about now coming back in front of our home fans and laying down a marker, in terms of a good performance and a good game. It wasn't perfect, but it was a good step.”

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