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Panama is a familiar Gold Cup matchup for USA in semifinals

They have been the unavoidable steppingstone, the country the United States has had to go through to capture its last two CONCACAF Gold Cups.

Panama dealt the U.S. its first ever Gold Cup group stage loss in this year's tournament. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
Panama dealt the U.S. its first ever Gold Cup group stage loss in this year's tournament. (Chris O'Meara/AP)Read more

They have been the unavoidable steppingstone, the country the United States has had to go through to capture its last two CONCACAF Gold Cups.

In reaching the Gold Cup final in three of its last four attempts, the United States hasn't been unable to overlook the tiny nation of Panama, which the USA defeated in the 2005 final for its third Gold Cup. (The USA also won in 1991 and 2002.) The Americans bounced Panama in the quarterfinal stages in both the 2007 and 2009 tournament - the latter a 2-1 win at Lincoln Financial Field.

This year, paired with the Panamanians in Group C, the United States suffered its only loss, 2-1. The 90 minutes can only be described as dominance by the Panamanians, who proved they deserved to win the group. So the stage is set for one hell of a rematch, which comes tonight when the teams square off in the first game of semifinal doubleheader in Houston.

A win and the USA will await the winner of the nightcap featuring Honduras and Mexico. Saturday's final will be held at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena (9 p.m., Fox Soccer Channel). But a loss to Panama means no championship rematch against Mexico, which downed the United States in 2009, which would raise questions yet again regarding the future of coach Bob Bradley.

One thing the Stars and Stripes have going for it is a recent run of consistency. After starting the tournament in visible disarray, the United States picked up the pace in a pair of shutouts. While the first was an unconvincing, 1-0 win over Guadeloupe in the final match of group play, the 2-0 quarterfinal victory over Jamaica, led by midfielder Jermaine Jones and forward Clint Dempsey, conveyed that perhaps the United States is back to the prowess that, pre-tournament, many felt would assure a championship run. This in spite of a demoralizing 4-0 defeat to Spain, 4 days before the start of the Gold Cup.

"As the tournament goes on, you start to build team unity," U.S. midfielder Landon Donovan said after the Jamaica match Sunday. Donovan came on as a second-half substitute, the first time he didn't start an international match since 2007. "It doesn't happen right away. You can't come in and expect after a week or 2 that everything is going to be clicking. You can see guys are starting to trust each other. They are learning how guys want the ball in different spots, and we're starting to play as a team."

This will be a very different Panama than the one that defeated the Americans 11 days ago. For starters, the team will be without striker Blas Perez, who was ejected in the quarterfinal against El Salvador. However, Panama's top goal-scoring threat, Luis Tejada, will look to net his fifth goal of the tournament. Tejada has a goal in each of Panama's previous four matches. Furthermore, Tejada, Gold Cup MVP in 2007, has eight goals over the course of three Gold Cup campaigns.

Still, coach Julio Dely Valdes knows to expect a much stingier U.S. defense this time around, one that hasn't been scored upon since the last time these two played. In case you were wondering, the clean sheet has lasted 234 minutes (2 1/2 matches).

"This time is going to be very different from the match we played in the previous stage," Valdes told reporters. "It will be very complicated."

But then again it generally has been whenever the United States and Panama share the same pitch.