By Michael Lewis
ARLINGTON, Texas – Panama head coach Julio Dely Valdes may be a soccer coach and not a history professor, but he is certainly knowledgeable about past events. He realizes how difficult it is to beat a team twice in the same competition.
Dely Valdes and his team learned that lesson all too well at the 2011 CONCACAF Gold Cup.
"We faced the United States on two occasions," he said. "We won the first and the second time around [in the semifinals] was the one that killed us."
Let’s fast forward to this year's competition. On July 7, in the tournament opener, Panama recorded a 2-1 Group A win over Mexico.
On Wednesday night, the Canaleros take on the Mexicans again, this time in the second game of a semifinal doubleheader at Cowboys Stadium. The United States meets Honduras in the opener. For CONCACAF official notes about this game, click here.
"To play a game in the group stage has nothing to do with the semifinal match," he said at a press conference at the stadium Tuesday. "The semifinal match is to win or to lose. It is to defeat or to die. We have to try to be the most perfect that we can. We have to try to be our best because the slightest error could leave us out of the competition."
Mexico head coach Jose Manuel de la Torre is welcoming the second chance as El Tri vies for a record seventh Gold Cup crown. It has made considerable improvement since that opening loss, registering three consecutive wins -- 2-0 over Canada and 3-1 over Martinique, both in the group stage, and a 1-0 quarterfinal victory over Trinidad & Tobago on Saturday.
"I have seen the team little by little. I've seen it improve, saw it get better," de la Torre said. "We are trying to correct certain mistakes, trying to see that are better at the individual. That gives the players confidence that there is improvement and that's accompanied by better results."
While doing well in every competition it enters is paramount, winning the Gold Cup remains a top priority for Mexico.
"We are totally focused on the Gold Cup," de la Torre stressed. "We are not thinking about (World Cup) qualifying. We always leave it clear in each competition you play, you leave behind everything else and you focus on what you are competing for. Right now we're thinking only Panama and that's the way it's always has been."
Mexico goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco said he was more concerned about how his team plays than Panama.
"More than to worry about what they can or can't do, we are worried about we're doing…if we do our job, and do what is asked of us," he said.
Panama, which is 1-3-2 with six points in the final round of World Cup Qualifying for Brazil 2014, is undefeated in the Gold Cup. After besting Mexico, it blanked Martinique, 2-0, and played Canada to a scoreless draw in Group A action. The Panamanians bounced back with a 6-1 win over Cuba in Saturday's quarterfinals.
"We have the reason, the need and the want to get to the final," Dely Valdes declared.
Panama is aiming for a second appearance in the championship game. In 2005, it lost to the U.S. on penalty kicks in the 2005 final after scoreless draw.
The Canaleros will be bolstered by striker Blas Perez, who did not play in the first encounter against Mexico due to a commitment for his club, FC Dallas. Reunited with the national side, Perez proved his worth in the quarterfinal win over Cuba, striking twice in the second half.
"It's very important to have him," Dely Valdes said. "Blas is a very important player for Panama. It's a player who always gives it all on the field. He has a lot to offer to the team both inside and outside the field. Those are the types of players every coach wants to have on the team."