Panama vs. Bolivia—the first game on tap for Monday's Copa America action—was supposed to be the afterthought, the so-called "other game" due to the presence of a final rematch coming up just an hour after their finish. Argentina-Chile was the headliner, with Lionel Messi in the building and tons of other international stars around at Levi's Stadium. But despite the wet and dreary conditions at Camping World Stadium, the first matchup of the day turned out to be an entertaining one.
Chances, counter-attacks, and speedy dribbles were constants in Orlando. Panama's quick and agile wingers were always finding ways around Bolivia's fragile backline, while La Verde carved out chances with balls in the box and scrappy set pieces. Both teams were able to keep attacks going for long periods of time, making for wide-open, entertaining soccer, even if only 13,000 fans were around to witness it.
It turned out to be the second highest-scoring match of the tournament—behind Sunday night's Mexico-Uruguay 3-1 thriller—and although it wasn't exactly a back-and-forth barnburner, it provided excitement that we haven't yet seen in this year's Copa.
That will likely change as the stakes get higher and the stars get brighter, but so far, we haven't seen enough of what we saw between Panama and Bolivia. If you want more of that, watch more Panama, because the high-paced style they employ never fails in the entertainment category. That was on full display against Bolivia.
Los Canaleros play a hectic counter-attacking style that prioritizes getting the ball out to the wingers and either sending in crosses or taking on defenders 1v1 and getting into the box. They distribute from deep with Anibal Godoy and Gabriel Gomez and let the outside players—be it the wingers or the second striker, Luis Tejada—run with whatever space is given to them. Their 1v1 skills and ability to skin defenders on the dribble allow them to find room to put the ball in the box.
Players like Alberto Quintero and Abdiel Arroyo (who came on for Armando Cooper in the second half and earned an assist) are pacey and agile and thus able to get to the touchline and cut in. When they get past the initial defender—usually the full-back—they force center backs to range out of position and defend them, opening up space in the box for whoever will receive the cross.
Usually, the beneficiary of these balls is the one and only Blas Perez. Perez, a large, physical number-nine who will annoy defenders to death in the box, is a classic target forward who manages to get on the end of pretty much anything and everything that comes near him, so when short-range crosses come into the box, he often pounces on them. He scored twice against Bolivia on balls into the penalty area by wingers, and those ended up being the difference, as his team won by a score of 2-1 in their first ever Copa America match.
When they are able to push balls out towards the touchline, Panama will throw numbers into the attack and overwhelm the opposition. They earn set pieces and pick up scrappy goals. While that means they are at times vulnerable to counter-attacks against them, the speed they have getting back on defense makes it worth the risk.
It's effective. They were the better team for much of the game, and while Bolivia aren't exactly Brazil, there were promising signs from a team that will have to contend with Chile and Argentina coming up in their remaining group stage matches. Panama just might be able to scrape out a couple goals against the giants, and after these three points, that could possibly mean a spot in the quarterfinal. Very unlikely, but something that could happen. They're a good team to root for.
Whatever occurs, you can be assured that it will be fun to watch.