Bob Bradley and the U.S. national team answered their critics Sunday with an exquisite performance, dominating Jamaica to set a rematch with Panama in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals.
Jermaine Jones' deflected volley at the start of the second half made the difference in the 2-0 triumph, and without the deflection -- and an unfortunate red card -- the opening quarterfinal in Washington would have gone to overtime and perhaps penalty kicks.
Galaxy goalkeeper Donovan Ricketts was that good -- easily the best player on the field, making six saves ranging from merely great to oh-my-God sensational to prevent the Yanks from ringing up an impressive scoreline.
Clint Dempsey added a late goal, benefiting from the red card to Houston Dynamo defender Jermaine Taylor and the Reggae Boyz's need to push forward in search of an equalizer.
Panama, which stunned the U.S. in group play, did its part in the nightcap, winning on penalties after rallying for a 1-1 draw with El Salvador, which was supported by a vocal crowd of 45,423 at RFK Stadium in Washington.
A ninth-minute hamstring injury to Jozy Altidore, who was stretchered off the field with his face buried in his hands, marred a U.S. triumph that should -- but won't -- subside calls to end Bradley's tenure. The Manhattan Beach-based coach has always had his critics, but he's been particularly under fire after a disastrous showing in the pre-Gold Cup friendly with Spain was followed by poor performances against Panama and Guadeloupe.
Some of the criticism is on target. The U.S. has a knack for going behind early -- we saw it at the World Cup last year, and with better finishing Guadeloupe and Jamaica would have joined Panama with a quick lead. In a sport in which comebacks are difficult, it's a major concern, and it points to problems with preparedness.
The U.S. performance against Jamaica answers so many questions, and if it's something Bradley's boys can build upon -- if it is imbedded in the fabric of the team rather than a wonderful one-off -- it could open a path to unprecedented play and, perhaps, success.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. As good as Jamaica has been in this Gold Cup -- watch out for the Reggae Boyz in World Cup qualifying! -- Mexico is a different animal, and El Tri won't sit back and counter, as the Jamaicans tried to do.
Play with this kind of verve, with all the possession and interchange, against Mexico -- and then against the Europeans and South America's giants -- and we might have something here.
A quick look at the 15th day in the region's nations championship:
SALUTING JONES: Jones, the German-born and -bred son of an American serviceman, offered a Father's Day military salute after he volleyed Taylor's clearance from 25 yards to give the U.S. a 49th-minute lead.
The midfielder was the most influential player on the field, thanks to that strike -- Ricketts dived to his left and appeared to have it covered, but it deflected off Taylor and to the other side of the net -- and to a well-executed dive in the 67th that prompted Mexican referee Marco Rodriguez to dismiss Taylor.
Had Rodriguez seen that there was no contact, Jones would have been cautioned for simulation and, if Rodriguez were doing his job, sent off with a second yellow card. That could have changed things drastically, enabling Jamaica to throw off the constraints applied by the Yanks' possession game and Jones- and Michael Bradley-influenced midfield domination and to find some space to feed off superior speed.
The Reggae Boyz had just one outstanding chance, and it came at the start, naturally, but U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard stopped San Jose Earthquakes forward Ryan Johnson from pont-blank range, and Luton Shelton -- with 31 international goals -- knocked the rebound high on an open net.
Ricketts repeatedly came up big. He parried a Dempsey volley in the 13th minute, tipped a Dempsey free kick over the crossbar in the 36th, dived to stop Sacha Kljestan in the 39th, Juan Agudelo in the 42nd and Eric Lichaj in the 43rd, made an exceptional stop on a point-blank Dempsey header in the 61st, then dived to stop a Dempsey free kick in stoppage and halt Agudelo on the rebound.
Dempsey's goal, from Agudelo's feed, was most impressive for how he let the ball roll rather than hit it, a manuever that took a leaping Ricketts out of the play and left an open net for a simple tap-in.
CENTRAL AMERICA REDUX: The second all-Central America quarterfinal wasn't all that different from Saturday's first: an invigorating battle determined by drama at the penalty spot.
Panama forced overtime with a weird 89th-minute goal -- a chaotic goal-line sequence ended with Salvadoran goalkeeper Miguel Montes catching a deflected ball inside his net -- and reached the final four when all five of its shooters converted penalty kicks after 30 minutes of extra time.
The key figure this time was El Salvador's Rodolfo Zelaya, who missed one penalty kick (in the 23rd minute, a just result -- there was no foul), converted another (in the 78th after he was clearly taken down by Roman Torres) and made his during the tiebreaker.
The only miss in the shootout was decisive. Dennis Alas shot weakly on El Salvador's first try.
DAYS 16-17 HIGHLIGHT: Flights to Houston and preparations for Wednesday's semifinals. DAY 18: A U.S.-Mexico final has been expected since … well, it's always expected. And now we're on the doorstep, with El Tri needing to steamroll unimpressive Honduras and U.S. to avenge its group-stage loss to Panama.
Quarterfinals (at RFK Stadium, Washington)
United States 2 (Jones 49, Dempsey 80), Jamaica 0
Panama 1 (Tejada 89), El Salvador 1 (Zelaya pen. 78), OT (Panama advances on penalties, 5-3)
Semifinals (at Reliant Stadium, Houston)
United States vs. Panama, 4 p.m. TV: Fox Soccer Channel and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34)
Mexico vs. Honduras, 7 p.m. TV: Univision (KMEX/Channel 34)
Final (at the Rose Bowl, Pasadena)
Mexico/Honduras vs. United States/Panama, 6 p.m. TV: Fox Soccer Channel and Univision (KMEX/Channel 34)
1. Javier Hernandez (Mexico) 6
2. Rodolfo Zelaya (El Salvador) 4
3. Jerry Bengtson (Honduras) 3
Carlo Costly (Honduras) 3
Aldo de Nigris (Mexico) 3
Luis Tejada (Panama) 3
7. Jozy Altidore (USA) 2
Dwayne De Rosario (Canada) 2
Clint Dempsey (USA) 2
Giovani Dos Santos (Mexico) 2
Gabriel Gomez (Panama) 2
Andres Guardado (Mexico) 2
Ryan Johnson (Jamaica) 2
Brice Jovial (Guadeloupe) 2
Demar Phillips (Jamaica) 2
Carlos Ruis (Guatemala) 2
Marco Ureña (Costa Rica) 2