Sloppy tie leaves under-23 squad alive,
but with its back to the wall

by Eric Jackson

On September 6 in Managua Gary Stempel didn’t look the least bit happy. Though there were a few scraps of silver lining in the cloud, the Panamanian under-23 team that he coaches looked downright awful for most of the game with their Nicaraguan counterparts, were lucky to come away with a tie, and now must beat the Nicas at Rommel Fernandez Stadium on September 10 to keep their dream of making it to next year’s Athens Olympiad alive.

Right at the start, Panama was in control, with José Justavino repeatedly outrunning the Nicaraguan defenders down the right hand side, posing threats that the home team slowed only with difficulty, sometimes committing fouls in the process. True, Nicaragua’s midfielders were superior than Panama’s at the outset, but in the first 10 minutes it appeared that Panama would dominate the game.

Then, quick as a flash at about 10:45 of the first half, Nicaragua’s center Mario Morales let fly with a long shot from the goalie’s right, and it looked easy enough to handle, except that David Martínez was allowed to get his foot on the ball and deflect it into the corner of the net. Make that 1-0 Nicaragua, on the strength of the night’s first glaring Panamanian defensive error.

For the next half-hour or so Nicaragua dominated play --- true, picking up a couple of yellow cards in the process --- and it just didn’t look like a Gary Stempel team, the sort of a squad that gives up a goal that it shouldn’t and then calms down and comes back.

But then, at 41:50, Panama’s José Garcés streaked down the field on a breakaway --- a Nicaraguan defensive mistake, if we want to be honest about it --- and put the ball in the net to tie the game.

At 44:10 the Nicaraguans were set to tie the score with a strange header deflection, but Panamanian goalie Francisco Portillo came up with the brilliant save to keep the score tied at halftime.

In the second half, Panama showed a brief flash of offensive ball control --- EVER so brief --- and then at 1:50 there was a long Nicaraguan clearing pass, a spastic move by Panamanian defender and captain Felipe Baloy and it should have been 2-1 Nicaragua but wasn’t owing to another good play by Portillo.

For the next half hour or so Panama and Nicaragua traded some good chances that failed to put the ball in the net. Quite frankly, both teams looked disorganized but Panama looked worse.

Then at 34:48, Nicaragua’s Milton Bustos sent a long centering pass in front of the goal, which the defense misplayed, allowing Rúdel Calero to head it into the net. Now it was 2-1 Nicaragua, playing at home against a Panamanian team that was having a bad night and most of the time gone.

Ah, but this is a Gary Stempel team, albeit on a night that contorted the coach’s facial expressions from scowls to looks of exasperation and back. Stempel’s boys never give up, and at 43:39 with a crowd milling about the ball in front of the Nicaraguan goal, Luis Tejada got his foot in the right place, which sent the sphere past Nica goalie Denis Espinosa, giving Panama the 2-2 tie.

The last time Nicaragua and Panama’s under-23 teams played, in the 2002 Copa de Naciones, Nicaragua won by a 1-0 score. Now comes a return match that will determine who will stay alive in the quest to go to the Olympics, and a tie in Panama eliminates Stempel’s team. It’s now a must-win situation before a home crowd on September 10, and if Panama can show that what happened in Managua was just one of those freakish off nights and play with the discipline that the coach expects and the skill that the fans know they have, a win will send the isthmian squad to the next round against the winner of the series between St. Lucia and Antigua-Barbuda.

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