By Michael Lewis
ARLINGTON, Texas – Though its June results may have been somewhat uneven, Panama is enjoying a memorable July.
The Panamanians slipped during World Cup Qualifying last month, losing two straight games after a scoreless draw with Mexico in the CONCACAF hexagonal and falling from the group lead down to fifth place with a 1-3-2 record (6 points).
Today, the Canaleros find themselves on the cusp of making history at the CONCACAF Gold Cup. They will try for their first confederation crown, when it faces the four-time champion United States in Sunday’s final at Soldier Field in Chicago.
Needless to say, head coach Julio Dely Valdes has been quite pleased with his team’s recent performances, especially since bouncing back from a difficult qualifying spell in which the Central American side lost dropped consecutive 2-0 road matches to Costa Rica and the United States.
Dely Valdes stated he did not lose faith in the team and neither did the players.
"The coaching staff, the players, the directors despite what happened in the month of June, we never lost faith,” said Dely Valdes. “The president of the federation, they give us our faith. I think the fans did lose it at some point. We lost consecutive games in qualifying and we hadn't experienced that negative streak. We couldn't lose faith in a team.”
Before Panama defeated Mexico in Wednesday's semifinals, Dely Valdes said his squad would have to play a perfect game. He thought it did in registering a 2-1 victory at Cowboys Stadium.
The same goes for Sunday's encounter as well.
"Panama has to make a perfect game again," Dely Valdes continued. "We try to be better than the rival. We were able to see that [Wednesday]. We were able to block out key players from the Mexican National Team and we've been able to go up against them. Other teams have good things and bad things and we're going to go up against the U.S. team and block those good points they have against us. I think that will be the key to the game."
The only time the Americans and the Panamanians battled in a Gold cup final, the U.S. managed to win in a penalty-kick shootout, 3-1, after the two teams played to a 120-minute scoreless draw. Dely Valdes remembered it as a very even match.
"We have to match what we did in 2005," he said. "On this occasion, we're way better than we were in 2005 with a team that is always going to the opposing goal, that has a great backline. We're going to go up against a rival with a great squad, but I think we have great possibilities of lifting the cup for the first time in history."
The U.S. has scored more goals (19) than any other team in this Gold Cup, while Panama has allowed the fewest goals (three).
"So it's going to be a great match," Dely Valdes concluded.