Altidore, Johnson goals lead United States past Panama, to top of CONCACAF qualifying

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SEATTLE – And just like that, all the consternation of the Jurgen Klinsmann era seems like a distant memory, with the United States Men’s National Team’s 2-0 victory over Panama on Tuesday vaulting the team to the top of their World Cup qualifying group.

A perfectly executed a first half counter attack say Jozy Altidore finish a Fabian Johnson cross in the 36th minute, opening the scoring for the Americans. Early in the second half, Geoff Cameron lofted a ball over the Panamanian defense for Eddie Johnson, the Seattle Sounder finishing into the left of goal in front of 40,847 of his local fans, giving the U.S. their two-goal margin.

The win leaves the U.S. at the top of CONCACAF qualifying, their three points enough to leap-frog a Costa Rican team that drew, 0-0, in Mexico City.

In a game played without starting midfielder Jermaine Jones, we knew Michael Bradley was going to be important, and while dropping back early and orchestrating play toward a left side the U.S. seemed intent to leverage, the American maestro was quickly at his game-dictating best. But it was his drive, not his orchestration, that helped produce the first goal, with Bradley taking a 36th minute ball won by Cameron and snapping the Panamanian defense.

Bursting through midfield, Bradley drew the back line to him before playing wide left at the edge of the U.S.’s final third. There Fabian Johnson had all day to hit an indefensible ball across goal for Altidore. The striker’s third goal in as many games gave the U.S. a 1-0 lead.

(MORE: Five things we learned from the U.S. win)

Having controlled play through much of the half, the U.S. were right to claim the first goal, one that could have come earlier. In the third minute, Fabian Johnson’s half-volley from nine yards out flew over the Jaime Penedo’s goal. Three minutes later, a cross from DaMarcus Beasley whiffed on by Johnson saw Clint Dempsey’s own half-volley rushed by Carlos Rodriguez. In the 22nd minute, a cross knocked down for Bradley was headed for nylon had it avoided Dempsey at the edge of the six. By the time the U.S. broke through in the 36th minute, a series of chances complemented their constant forays down the left to cast them as the more effective side.

Panama, however, had their own isolated moments as they tried to exploit Brad Evans down their own left side. Left back Carlos Rodriguez appeared to beat him early before slipping on a suspect pitch, one that saw each side’s players in constant danger of going to ground. As the half went on, left-wing Alberto Quintero gave Evans problems, but with Panama unable to maintain significant possession, the Canaleros had far less success down their left then the U.S. had down theirs.

(MORE: U.S. player ratings vs. Panama)

After an initial feeling out period to start the second half, the United States doubled their lead in the 53rd minute. Beasley, on the ball near the center line, was allowed to cut in before playing forward to Cameron. The Stoke City defender turned before lifting a ball behind the defense for Eddie Johnson, who’d beat Rodriguez from his right midfield position. After settling the ball in the right of the box, Johnson used his second touch to finish far post on Penedo, giving the U.S. their 2-0 lead.

Although Dempsey nearly added to the U.S.’s lead in the 63rd while Beasley hit the post in the 79th, the Americans second half was defined by a confident control they had exhibited from the opening kickoff. Without Blas Pérez in the team for Panama, the visitors lacked a focal point in attack, though even if the FC Dallas striker had made the trip, it’s unlikely he would have changed his team’s destiny. As they did in Jamaica, the U.S. looked like a team that has come into its own, but whereas a second half blip forced the States to find some late heroics to win in Kingston, Tuesday’s game displayed a calm authority befitting the best team in their region.

Sitting on top of “The Hex,” the U.S. has CONCACAF’s best claim to that title, though if there are any doubts as to whether Klinsmann’s team is for real, the squad get another chance to silence critics next Tuesday. At Rio Tinto Stadium in Utah, the U.S. will have an opportunity to avenge their only loss of qualifying’s final round when they face the fourth-place Hondurans in Sandy.