Puerto Rico continue to defy the odds, stunning Panama with added time winner

February 24 – Puerto Rico delivered one of those Gold Cup nights at the Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego that will live long in the memory, stunning Panama with a 2-1 win that positions them for qualification for the quarter finals at their first appearance at a major finals.

Puerto Rico’s journey in the W Gold Cup has been magnificent. From a surprise win over Haiti to qualify for the group stages from the preliminary round play-in, to holding Brazil to 0-0 for 80 minutes and only losing 1-0, to now coming from behind to overcome a much-admired Panama team who played at the 2023 World Cup and are noted for their grit and never-say-die performances.

Puerto Rico’s heroes were numerous. Their starting XI contained three players who do not have a club, two players who are at US colleges and a 16-year-old – all expertly martialled by Nat Gonzalez, himself a college coach.

Billed as a battle of the goalkeepers, neither team had scored in the group stages, though both have fought rearguard actions inspired by their two outstanding goalkeepers.

Puerto Rico, world ranked 103, had kept Brazil, world ranked 11, at 0-0 for most of their group opener with a succession of saves by Sydney Martinez.

Panama had faced a much tougher time, losing 6-0 to Colombia, but it would have been at least double that if not for Yenith Bailey who has so often kept her country in the running.

Puerto Rico have played just 68 international women’s matches and this is their first major tournament finals. They have never played Panama before.

Panama have had plenty of big tournament experience over the past two years, including the 2023 Women’s World Cup.

Puerto Rico started the stronger and in the 2nd minute Marcano tumbled in the box, no foul. Panama soon began to build passages of possession but without really troubling Martinez.

Natalia Mills threatened on the right of Panama’s attack while Marta Cox was a physical presence in the middle, hitting a shot from distance over the top on 22’.

Puerto Rico’s main threat was their athleticism and speed on the counter attack that was able to get behind Panama’s back four.

After a series of Puerto Rico corners that saw Madison Cox’s header comfortably gathered by Bailey, it was a Panama counter attack that broke the deadlock.

The ball came out to Mills on the right who drove into the Panama half before feeding Carina Baltrip who was steaming down the centre of the pitch and sidefooted the ball over the top of a diving Martinez.

Puerto Rico responded with Juelle Love and Daniella Marcano particularly dynamic, but they couldn’t find the final ball close enough to goal to get past Bailey.

At the other end Amber Diorio was once again the rock, and the enforcer, around which the Puerto Rican back five were built.

In added time and the last move of the first half Marcano gathered the ball in her own half and stormed towards Panama’s goal. She fed the ball to Love who was pulled down on the 5m outside of the box. Captain Nickolette Driesse stepped up for the free kick but blew her shot over the top. It was a forewarning of the drama to come.

The start of the second half almost saw a Puerto Rico equaliser. A direct ball from centre back Madison Cox – alongside Diorio an immense force in defence and currently without a club but surely not for much longer – was threaded through to Kennedy Garcia, on as a sub. who was joined with numbers only for the ball to go wide.

Puerto Rico had gone to a back four and were now challenging Panama’s midfield. But it was Panama found the net. A foul by Diorio saw a free kick into the box that eventually fell to Baltrip who calmly fired home – VAR ruled offside.

The game had increased in intensity as Puerto Rico pushed for an equaliser and Panama sought a second.

Panama’s Katherin Parris just failed to turn her defender 3m from goal while Driesse again hit over the top at the other end, this time from 10m out.

With Panama subbing Mills and dropping deeper, Puerto Rico built pressure. A Julienne Aguilera corner on the right was hit deep to the back post where the outstanding Cox was free to head in – 1-1 and 17 minutes left to play.

Puerto Rico were going for the kill. 19-year-old Garcia  was causing all kinds of problems for Panama through the middle, and into the last 10 minutes won a free kick just outside the box in front of goal. Aguilera fired over.

Riley Tanner almost won it for Panama in added time but Martinez was equal to her 3 tap on.

It was straight up the other end where Marcano did win it for Puerto Rico. Set free inside the box by Garcia, she hammered home for 2-1 and a history making win for Puerto Rico.

For the third time in a week Puerto Rico were celebrating

Panama now face Brazil, who beat them 4-0 at the 2023 World Cup in the group stage.

Puerto Rico will look to grow again as they take on Colombia knowing that if they lost but keep the score down are in a prime position to qualify for the knock-out rounds as one of the two best third-placed group finishers.

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